Invited but not (always) willing to go

Refugees in Tham Hin camp (Thailand) as an example of migration theories' shortcomings

Master's Thesis, 2011

116 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents




1. Introduction

2. On the emergence of refugees
2.1. On resettlement issues
2.1.1. Regarding US resettlement

3. Thailand´s first challenge: Indochina refugee influx
3.1. The case of the Laos Hmong

4. Refugees´ position in Thailand
4.1. The Royal Thai Government´s policies
4.2. An historical overview on Burmese developments
4.2.1. Camp establishments and developments since the 1990s

5. Theorizing movements – a discussion of migration theories
5.1. Hypothesis: Social aspects tend to be neglected

6. Concretizing theory – the case of Tham Hin camp
6.1. Background – Tham Hin camp
6.2. Survey design
6.2.1. Problems encountered
6.3. Data analysis – methodology
6.4. Interpretation
6.4.1. Regarding a) Social ties and obligations
6.4.2. Regarding b) Coping worries
6.4.3. Regarding Group c) Contention
6.4.4. Regarding Group d) Passiveness
6.4.5. Regarding e) No understanding
6.5. Conclusion on results

7. Food for thought: Social dynamics and cohesion

8. Conclusion – lessons learnt (?)

9. Appendices
9.1. Appendix I: Worldwide UNHCR Resettlement Submissions vs. Departures 2003-2010
9.2. Appendix II: Camp population numbers 2007-2011
9.3. Appendix III: UNHCR Resettlement numbers
9.4. Appendix IV: Questions of Focus Group Discussions
9.5. Appendix V: Map of Thai refugee camps
9.6. Appendix VI: Map of Karen settlements

10. References
Thesis Summary

1. Introduction

Case Study: A 44 year old married woman with six children has not

considered resettlement. She prefers to remain in the camp and see if the situation

in Myanmar, where her father siblings still live, will improve.[1]

Even in the most basic theories about migration, there is an inherent assumption that people in the “Global South” are eager to move at the first opportunity, and that this decision is foremost a “rational choice” decision, depending in the largest part on economic considerations. This assumption, which applies to economic migrants moving from the periphery to the central developed states, is even more assumed for refugees, considering their often precarious, inhumane living conditions, in crowded camps with little possibilities for any improvements. It seems only natural, therefore, to assume that these groups of the most vulnerable would be eager to move at the first opportunity offered, even at the cost of making large sacrifices in order to become one of the “lucky few” able to move on. In regard to refugee situations, foremost in Africa, this seemed unfortunately to been confirmed in scandals involving UNHCR staff with taking bribes for resettlement placements.[2]

Over the years, we have seen not much of this assumption change, and the picture of “Europe as the El Dorado of the welfare state”, beleaguered by the less-fortunate of the developing world” is ever-dominant – from a European perspective, there is a long list for “them” to come to “us”.

Against this hype, however, the reality looks much different. Indeed, only a very small minority of migrants and refugees are actually arriving in “the West”, or even trying to get there – the majority of both groups only move to neighboring countries, which are often as poor as their home region. Indeed, only a small proportion of any “emigration country” would see migration to “the West” or “the North” as the best solution to their everyday problems, and this applies as well to the direst situations as we see in many refugee camps. Therefore, even if “Fortress Europe” would open its gates completely, the fear of an “inrush of people” is unjustified – most people, even in developing countries, are, just as in “the North”, simply too very firmly rooted in their own communities.[3]

This paper is the outcome of a survey done by UNHCR in Tham Hin camp, one of the nine Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, which had the aim of creating a clearer picture as to why such a relatively large proportion of eligible refugees didn’t chose to resettle, even when they were presented with this opportunity. More precisely, the survey found that less than half of eligible refugees in Tham Hin didn’t come forward for resettlement at the start of the US resettlement program in the camp and only over the next years until the program´s closure in 2009 did this number grow slowly. This therefore contradicts the general assumptions about refugee communities stated above.

Consequently, my research evolved from the Tham Hin survey, having been involved with it during an internship with the UNHCR field office in Kanchanaburi between July and September 2010. My aim is to contribute to the literature challenging the general notion that migrants, or refugees, are completely untied individuals, whose only aim is to escape their situation at the first chance available. Contrarily, I argue that this picture is incorrect, as it negates the existence of social bonds or other ties that may influence an individual’s choice on whether or not to move. This paper shall add its part to the discussion on migration theories by stressing the role of social factors in the process of migration. I hope that this paper and the case study contained within contributes to challenge the cliché that a “fortress Europe” is necessary and bolsters the concept that any theory which neglects to look at the social “fabric” inherent in any community is likely to be ineffective in trying to control, influence or predict migration movements.

In order to provide a better picture of resettlement in general and its role in refugee situations, I will commence chapter two by outlining the situation regarding refugees in general, including the emergence of refugee movements and their subsequent position in the international arena. Upon this, the focus will be on resettlement, followed by an outline of the US` role in resettlement, as the US have always been one of the biggest players in this matter.

When looking at the Burmese refugee situation today, it is important to remember the situation of the Hmong refugees in Thailand, following the Indochina war in the 1970s and onwards. In many respects the two communities resemble each other, however the way the Hmong situation was eventually resolved differs markedly from what we see today in the context of the Burmese. Therefore in chapter three, I will outline the process surrounding the resettlement of the last remaining Hmong refugees who stayed in the Wat Thamkrabok temple compound until the mid 1990s, until finally being resettled as well. Comparing the eventual resettlement of this last group of Hmong with the Burmese resettlement situation today is giving us a good idea about what it depends on whether a resettlement operation is efficient. Literature in this context centers either on “America´s forgotten allies”[4], meaning the Hmong fighters who aided the US troops in Laos but were subsequently left behind to fend for themselves under the stringent Prathet Lao government, or it puts the spotlight on the US “airlifiting” of Hmong fighters, to provide them with a safe haven in the US. The latter includes extensive literature on various Hmong ethnic communities in the US and other resettlement countries (surprisingly even in one small rural community in southern Germany), as to the process of integration and coping in their new environment.

Little research exists for conditions in the refugee camps themselves along the Thai-Lao border, and especially in the last remaining “camp” at Wat Thamkrabok. For an outline on the situation Grigoleit (2006), Fink DeVivo (2005), as well as the Hmong Resettlement Task Force of Wisconsin (2004 and 2005) provide relevant insights into developments at the Wat.

In order to understand the context in which the nine camps exist in Thailand, it makes sense to provide a brief outline of the political situation of refugees in Thailand. As such, I have outlined the government´s stance and refugees´ position in chapter four. This is followed by an outline of the developments in Burma that have led to the very establishments of the camps, going back to the 1980s, since which there have been considerable changes. Extensive literature exists for both of these areas. For example, Lang (2002) provides an extensive historical overview of developments in Burma since British rule, including the military´s strategies that have led to the establishment of the camps in Thailand. Further, the UNHCR, as one of the main actors in refugee protection concerns in Thailand, also offers up to date information on relevant issues. As there are recurrent critiques on Thailand´s migrant workers and refugee policies, various NGO´s and other organizations publish frequent articles and updates on these very issues.[5]

Following on this, I will discuss major migration theories and their respective focus points in chapter five, drawing on authors as Parnreiter (2000), Hammar (1997), Massey (1993), Sassen (1991) and Castles/Miller (2009), who have all written extensively on international migration and various aspects thereof. This shall be the main body of the thesis and it will further underline its core hypothesis through detailing the neglect of social factors in these popular theories.

Subsequently in chapter six, the empirical example of Tham Hin camp – based upon the survey done in 2010—will be the focus. I will brief the reader on the background situation of Tham Hin camp, its community composition and management structure, as well as the actors involved and, of course, the resettlement situation in the camp. This will be followed by an outline of the survey design and the methodology developed and used by UNHCR during the survey. The focus of the UNHCR was rather “technically-oriented”, meaning that the intention was to find out reasons for non-resettlement which could then be used to improve UNHCR´s approach in the camp. In order to look at the material from a more sociological angle I have also used Mayring´s suggestions for encoding the data, as to develop five of what I have called “reason-types” for non-resettlement. Further knowledge on analyzing interviews and group discussions were drawn from Mayer (2009) and Gläser/Laudel (2009).

Finally also in chapter [6] the description of results, centering on statements by participants of the survey, will be discussed in detail. Likewise, I have drawn on a study of the faculty of sociology of the Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) in order to test possible connections in a grid structure consisting of different variables.

Based on the main conclusions of the survey in terms of social factors, chapter seven will look at the dynamics inherent in a refugee camp environment, as well as the structure that determines social relations between the various actors involved and the camp population. Namely, flight itself and the circumstances of living in an – often crowded – refugee camp are traumatic experiences that influence the camp community; further, self-perceptions of refugees themselves may impact on the decision whether or not to resettle. New hierarchies in a refugee community and the way individuals place themselves within it are established, which also are likely to change women´s role in this society and their status of authority.

In finality, chapter eight holds the conclusion of the paper.

2. On the emergence of refugees

Mass migrations of peoples have always occurred; however, `refugees` are a creation of the twentieth century state.”[6]

Migration of people is nothing particular to the 20th century, nor is the existence of refugees per se; however, the emergence of “refugees” on such a large scale as we see today can be attributed to developments at the end of the Second World War, as well as the end of the Cold War.

As Anderson (1991) has pointed out with his concept of “imagined communities”, the importance placed on national boundaries, which brought along permanent passports, identity papers and mapping were the decisive prerequisites that made the emergence of refugees, as we know them today, only possible. Here, the basic condition for counting as a refugee is the crossing of a national border, without which an individual may “only” count as an internally displaced person (IDP).[7]

The end of World War II saw thousands across Europe being persecuted, driven from their homes and dispersed in the chaos of war. These circumstances conditioned the establishment of the UNHCR in 1951, which on the onset was thought to be an only temporary agency.[8] Essentially, the scale of these displacements, their ever increasing duration as well as the growing importance of territorial states and nations´ sovereignty were decisive factors in the establishment of the Convention. As the scale of people fleeing violence and persecution outside of Europe increased as well, eventually the 1951 definition had to be widened by adding another Protocol in 19679, making the definition of who counts as a “refugee” applicable to a worldwide level. [10]

Up until the mid 1980s the UNHCR system with its definition of who counts as a refugee deserving international protection worked out quite reasonably; basic principles regarding human rights and dignities of refugees were respected, and a certain degree of burden-sharing of the international community was thought to be a necessary duty. However, as the Cold War came to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union, the necessity to fund certain “volatile” states was abandoned. As a result of the omission of financial contributions from “the West” “state implosions”/state collapses followed, which were subsequently followed by persecutions of certain groups and many atrocities, producing large flows of refugees moving partly towards Western Europe. These flows of refugees became increasingly challenging for the UNHCR.

Moreover, a certain degree of “re-thinking” began to emerge: no more “duties”, but more how to avoid these, or at best make them not emerge at all, became the focus for many states, especially in the Western hemisphere. As Goodwin-Gill has pointed out: “Duties, once freely assumed, are taken less seriously”.[11] With the abolition of a clearly divided line between the open market-oriented and the communist camp, states increasingly focused on themselves instead of the common good of “their” team, which became evident with less international cooperation in dealing with emerging refugee crises.[12]

As Lang has pointed out, “[t]he essential condition of becoming a “refugee” emerges with the “rupture of the minimum relationship of protection, trust and loyalty between the citizen and the home state” – meaning that the relationship between dutiful citizen and “fatherlike” state as a protector is taken away, leaving the individual concerned forced to look for sanctuary elsewhere. [13]

Such a definition concentrates on the relationship between the state and its citizen; however, to encompass the day-to-day activities of involved organizations and actors, and to define what concrete conditions make an individual a refugee, a more practical definition had to be drawn up. Subsequently, as for the above mentioned 1951 Geneva definition, an essential aspect of its formulation was to agree on a common definition on who would be regarded by all state parties involved as a “refugee” deserving international protection. As the convention was done under the background of the Second World War, its focus was on European persons fleeing fighting and acts of violence in connection to events occurring prior to January 1 st 1951. However, as a matter of fact this approach proved to be too inadequate in the years to come and had therefore to be expanded in 1967 to include all persons fleeing fighting, irrespective of origin and of a time deadline.

Subsequently, this widened definition still stands until today as the most widely spread definition on which UNHCR refugee status determination procedures are based, as well as most countries´ criteria who counts as a “refugee”. [14] However, there is quite extensive discussion about the limitations of this definition, particularly the importance of having a “well-founded fear of persecution” is very often argued to be too subjective: especially making the decision of awarding refugee status to an individual dependent on something as subjective as “fear” has always draws immense criticism. Suddenly this very subjective emotion has to be judged objectively by law authorities, judges and other decision makers who are at times not accustomed to refugee law or know little about an individual´s cultural background or conditions in the home country that may have led to the departure. Additionally, the necessity for adequate interpreters is not always acknowledged, which understandably makes judging this “well-founded fear of prosecution” too often bordering on randomness and the good- or badwill of the authorities in charge. Moreover, the 1951 definition had been drawn up on the basis that individuals who flee from political persecution should be granted protection; however, even though political activism is still often the main reason for persecution and subsequent flight, a rather new development of our time is that today´s refugees often seek protection because of attacks by government or non-governmental actors, irrespective of any engagement in active political opposition – a situation that also fits for the case of a large part of Burmese refugees. Individuals or groups are targeted as “mere victims”, not necessarily on the basis of social, cultural or other differences but nevertheless in a way that leaves no other choice for survival other than to leave one´s homeland.[15] Especially this third category of randomly targeted individuals is an inherent feature of many refugee situations of today, especially seen in Africa or South America.

Therefore, the continuing wars and war-like situations in Africa and Latin-America, which frequently witness large numbers of people fleeing fighting and grave human rights violations, finally called for a more regionally adequate version of the original definition. Subsequently in 1969 and 1984 respectively the OAU Refugee Convention as well as the Cartagena Declaration were created, trying to adapt the original definition to make it more applicable in a distinct African or Latin American context. Instead of emphasizing the need of a certain “deliberateness” of targeting an individual, these two definitions rather stress the persecution of more or less random groups of people who are forced to flee from either an outside aggressor, occupation, foreign domination or “events that seriously disturb public order”. In this way, the special situations in Africa and Latin America, which often include hard to identify warring factions that don’t necessarily target only one specific group, have been addressed. [16]

However, even though discussions surrounding the definition of who counts as a refugee are frequently debated, one core principle is inherent in all definitions and can be seen as the “basic” principle of refugee protection: Namely the provision of non-refoulement (enshrined also in the 1951 Geneva Convention). Essentially, this refers to the principle that no individual should be sent back to his or her country of origin if there is a fear that this might endanger his or her life or well-being (e.g. in the case of the threat of torture).[17]

This key principle of non-refoulement was also included in other international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as of course the above mentioned African and Latin American documents regarding refugees. Thus, even if countries such as Thailand haven’t signed the Geneva Convention, they are nevertheless expected by customary international law to abide by this principle. Considering the almost regular deportations of Burmese nationals from Thailand, there is frequent critique regarding Thailand´s breach of this basic provision of customary law.

However, as concerning the definition of “refugees”, even the principle of non-refoulement is frequently subject of discussion. Mainly, this discussion has been introduced by states that are concerned about subversion of their national sovereignty, as well as if there is a threat to national security. It is also unclear if the principle of non-refoulement applies equally to persons trying to enter a country as those being deported. [18]

As is evidence by the breakings of this principle of non-refoulement by various states, refugee protection was from the beginning and still is today subordinate to state sovereignty – to provide refugee protection has been agreed upon on the condition that the “final word” still belongs to the respective state, rendering refugee protection and the Geneva Convention essentially open to the same “toothless” criticism as, for example, the principle of Human Right law.[19] Moreover, even though UNHCR is seen as non-political, in reality it has proven itself to be highly political: namely, there can be no UNHCR intervention for humanitarian or other assistance if the government concerned rejects such assistance. Further, as the agency´s efforts would be impossible without due financial contributions by member states, this has created high dependency on state policies and allows the UNHCR to be shaped to a large degree by these forces.[20]

At the beginning of 2009 there were approx. 36 Million persons of concern to UNHCR , this being the highest figure since the agency´s inception. However, according to the aforementioned definition, “persons of concern” does not necessarily only mean “refugees” but also includes stateless persons, refugees returning home and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The number of refugees benefiting from UNHCR assistance in 2009 stood at around 10,4 Million persons. However, as with all official numbers, UNHCR figures have to be taken with care: Jeff Crisp points out that, “UNHCR statistics can be the result of negotiation between the Office and the host government, and typically include only those refugees under the mandate of UNHCR”. This means that in cases where e.g. the host state hinders more persons from entering designated camps (managed by UNHCR), this of course decreases the number of persons under the UN mandate. However at the same time, refugee numbers are distorted as official figures only include these persons under UNHCR-protection in these camps, neglecting those that were hindered from entering the camps. . Further, as can be seen in the case of Burmese in Thailand, the divide between economic migrants and refugees is quite often blurred: many potential refugees live hidden in urban areas, rather than staying in the camps required by many host governments, as e.g. in Thailand. Such policies, therefore, do have an impact on UNHCR numbers21.22

Despite the sometimes prevailing assumption about two thirds of all refugees worldwide are living in developing countries, mostly fleeing only to an imminent neighborhood country or to a country at best within their own continent. [23]

Within these environments of refuge, many end up living in crowded camps under rather inhumane conditions; not seldom do they get stuck in limbo. Subsequently, there has been a great demand for a solution, especially with protracted refugee situations which have seen generations grow up in camp environments.

For such long-standing situations such as this there are generally three options available, which are known as “durable solutions” by UNHCR standards. Primarily, whenever possible and deemed safe, voluntary repatriation to the home country is seen as the most desirable solution for all stakeholders. Secondly, if the opportunity of local integration is given (meaning permitted on the host governments´ side), this could be an option for at least part of the refugee community. However, these options are not always available, which often makes the third solution, resettlement to a third country, the most attractive and the most realistic solution.

2.1. On resettlement issues

Myth: Most refugees want to be resettled. Truth: Most refugees want to go home.

Resettlement is for refugees who have no other solution. 24

“Resettlement”, by definition, refers to “[T]he transfer of refugees and stateless people from the country in which they have sought refuge to another state that has agreed to admit them as refugees and/or to grant permanent settlement there.” 25

On a more operational level this means several “practical” stages, compromised of case identification, needs assessment, identity validation, eligibility determination and processing, transportation and passage, and then eventual integration into the receiving community, with special emphasis being placed on resettlement as an orderly process, against other forms of migration as being more “unpredictable”, or “random”.[26] For all the above steps, various actors are involved, being responsible for respective parts of the whole complicated process of transferring an individual from country A to country B. As has been pointed out, under their refugee protection mandate, UNHCR is highly involved in this process and cooperates at almost every stage with various NGOs and governmental stakeholders. Another main actor without most resettlement operations would be unthinkable is the IOM (International Organization for Migration), which, depending on the respective host country, manages pre-departure cultural orientation programs and very essentially the logistics of movements. Apart from these two rather big players, the IOM and the UNHCR, several other NGOs are involved in the process.

Throughout the 1980s actual resettlement numbers were much higher than what we see today. The foremost reason for this was that the war in Indochina produced massive flows of refugees pouring into neighboring countries, amongst those Thailand, which were quite generously resettled to Western third countries. Vietnamese refugees alone numbered approx. 700,000, who were for the largest part eventually resettled overseas. The number of actually resettled persons has gone down since then, with annual numbers standing at less than 80,000 annually for all resettlement-receiving countries combined. However, figures for refugees in need of resettlement stay high and have even risen during the previous years: UNHCR estimates that approx. 780,00027 refugees will be in need of resettlement over the next 3 to 5 years, a number which nevertheless only accounts for less than 10% of all refugees worldwide. For 2011 alone, needed placements have been estimated to be approx. 172,000 – basically, for every 100 refugees in need of resettlement, merely 10 get resettled each year.[28] At the Annual Tripartite Consultation on Resettlement in July 2011, the head of UNHCR´s resettlement division Wei-Meng Lim-Kabaa warned that under current conditions, about 100,000 refugees in need of resettlement will be left without a solution in 2011.[29]

Appendix I shows UNHCR submission numbers and subsequent acceptance numbers; as can be seen from the divergence, only about half, if not less, of all proposed cases for resettlement actually get resettled in the end, suggesting that even though states might mostly adhere to UNHCR recommendations regarding who they should focus on taking in, final admission numbers are nevertheless quite significantly low.

Until today, the US is the largest refugee receiver. Nevertheless, how dire the resettlement placement situation is at present can be seen from a US example: In 2008 the ceiling of US resettlement admissions has been put at 80,000 placements – UNHCR figures put places actually available for UNHCR referred resettlement to the US at 56,750; however, eventually resettled refugees to the US in 2008 have only been 48,828 persons.[30] This demonstrates that the national maximum admittance number for resettlement is not achieved, and that also not all refugees that the UNHCR suggests for resettlement are taken in eventually.

Again in 2009, out of an expected arrival of 75,000 according to a US government report, actual arrivals have been 62,011 persons, according to UNHCR numbers.[31]

What is striking about the above figures is that actual UNHCR submissions for persons in need of resettlement in the US have been 94,590 and 102,586 persons for 2008 and 2009 respectively. [32] While naturally there ought to be some divergence between submissions and consequent acceptance numbers, the gap between these two figures seems to be widening over the last couple of years.[33]

Overall, refugee submission rates have been generally increasing in the new millennium, with an all-times high in 2009 (128,000 persons submitted, up from 121,000 in 2008 and decreasing slightly to 108,082 in 2010), which is mostly due to improved UNHCR and NGO staff competencies in their identification of vulnerable persons of concern and in the better communications between field and head offices32F[34]. However, as has been noted already, state admissions do not keep step with the submission rate, and this remains to be the major problem. Due to this fact, the UNHCR had announced an increase of 10% in receiving states´ resettlement numbers as one of its major focus points for the period 2010-2011.[35]

Another point of concern which has been raised in recent times by UNHCR relates to the time of processing resettlement cases: the average duration of a “normal” case from submission by UNHCR to the receiving state concerned until the actual departure of the individual or the family should take approx. 12 months; however, in so called emergency cases, usually when the refugee concerned is in bad health or other dangerous circumstances, the processing time ought to be cut if possible to only several days until departure. This has proven not to be the case most of the time, with delays for screening, health and security checks etc. holding up the process, resulting in procedures taking an average about five months/140 days from submission to departure. This situation has been exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which created an additional increase in processing time due to even more rigorous security screenings. Also, due to increasingly strict criteria and screening procedures for such urgent cases, the total of 700 slots available in 2009 for such cases could not be utilized completely. For example, out of 1,022 persons submitted by UNHCR in 2009, only 653 persons eventually departed to a third country.[36]

Major departure countries (countries of first asylum from which refugees are resettling), as well as major countries of origin (refugees` home countries) haven´t changed much in the last couple of years; Nepal still ranks first regarding numbers of individuals submitted for resettlement, although numbers for Thailand fell out of the top three of departure countries, being replaced by Malaysia in 2010 (however, country of origin is still the same, namely Burma). Therefore, regarding nationalities affected, there haven’t been any changes in recent years, with Iraqi refugees being the most prominent population of refugees worldwide, followed by Burmese and Bhutanese refugees.35F[37]

Not every country which might accept asylum seekers on their “doorstep” has an official resettlement program in place; up through the current day, the United States still stands at the largest taker with resettlement acceptance numbers. Other prominent resettlement countries have included Canada, the northern European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand. However, recent years have seen countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, amongst others, as well as the UK and France build up or reinstall their resettlement programs. Germany has also enacted an ad hoc resettlement program since 2009.338 Relevant in the Asian context is the pilot project which Japan started in 2010, under which for three years 30 Burmese from one of the Thai camps will annually be resettled to Japan.[39]

However, connected to the problem of resettlement places available, European countries´ share up to today has been relatively minor, providing for only 13% in 2009 of overall places needed, an increase from merely 9% in 2007. Even though joining only in 2009, Germany had the highest number of acceptances as of 2009 (2,064 persons), thanks to special ad hoc admissions for mostly Iraqi refugees.[40]

Even though resettlement itself might be seen as a relatively “easy” means of relieving the plight of refugees worldwide, the process of moving individuals or families from place A to B must be understood as a process that not only includes refugees themselves and the receiving country, but also must include the host government´s cooperation and support as well, making the whole procedure of resettling refugees a complex process where dialogue, coordination and mutual understanding is crucial in achieving durable outcomes.

Further, for refugees themselves there exists neither a „right to resettlement“, nor any obligation on receiving state´s side to accept any number of refugees or other persons in need (e.g. stateless persons). Admission criteria, as well as numbers, are at the sole discretion of the receiving state and its national resettlement policies. However, most major receiving countries orient their policies towards recommendations set by UNHCR; thus, receiving governments usually work together on a regular basis with UNHCR and generally accept refugees deemed eligible by UNHCR screening processes.

This sole discretion of state´s decision on resettlement slots available proves to be one of the major “dilemmas” regarding refugee resettlement: On the one hand stands UNHCR´s core mandate and responsibility to provide durable solutions and protection for refugees and on the other hand there is a state´s desire to manage migration effectively and if possible, only admit skilled migrants and family immigrants.39F[41] Therefore, as states generally try to regulate and control migration coming towards them, there is a well-founded fear that providing (orderly) resettlement places might be increasingly seen as a “quid pro quo” solution for admitting refugees, rather than having states deal with the unpredictability of arriving asylum-seekers at one´s doorstep. However, even if resettlement might be a viable solution for (smaller) states that would like to participate in burden-sharing, this shouldn’t become a substitution for scaling down the possibility of seeking asylum individually. Both are two parts of the umbrella of refugee protection: where resettlement is dependent on the “vagueness” of state policy, asylum should continue to be a right under international human rights law and be dependent only on Convention criteria.[42]

As stated previously, the actual number of approx. refugees worldwide who might be involved in such a “managed migration” process stands at approx. 10% of all refugees worldwide- much less than one might expect; therefore, resettlement is hardly a “one fits all” solution and rather tends to play a minor role in finding solutions for refugees.

Further, the warm welcome that asylum seekers and refugees in general have been granted during the 1990s and beforehand has been steadily declining – today´s attitude in most industrialized countries has gone cold, keeping acceptance numbers low. This also applies to resettlement places available, meaning that most likely the “halcyon days” of large-scale resettlements, as have been seen in the case of the Indochinese with about two million persons being accepted into third countries, will most likely not be repeated in the future.[43]

However, as concerning developments in refugee situations in recent times, resettlement, even though very small compared to overall refugee numbers, can indeed prove to be of significant importance: especially in the case of long-standing refugee encampments that have been emerging since the 1990s. One apparent change since then is the duration of these situations: increasingly, refugee camps turn into now called Protracted Refugee Situations (PRS444), which see generations grow up in the same encampments. Indeed, over two thirds of today´s refugees worldwide find themselves not in an emergency situation but rather stuck in one of these protracted, ongoing camp environments, of which there are about 30 worldwide. Some of them, as can be expected, are the ones we see today in Thailand, compromised of Burmese refugees stuck in limbo in these camps.43F45 Many of these protracted camps throughout the world are closely connected to so called “failed/fragile states” which produce and maintain these situations. However, it is not only the continuing violence and absence of state protection for at least part of its citizens that can be seen as the source of PRS but moreover regional dynamics also help maintain these impasses. As Loescher et al have pointed out: “They [PRS] endure because of ongoing problems in the countries of origin, and stagnate and become protracted as a result of responses to refugee inflows, typically involving restrictions on refugee movement and employment possibilities, and confinement to camps”. F46 Thus not only have host governments play a role in often maintaining protracted situations, but also “political impasses” of potential third countries may hinder any improvements of such environments.

Consequently, the option of third country resettlement is often regarded as one of the (only) options available for such cases, as Erika Feller, former UNHCR High

Commissioner, noted in 2007:”While fewer than 1 percent of the world´s refugees may be resettled in any given year, resettlement is an important protection tool, a durable solution and a concrete manifestation of responsibility sharing.”[47]

This viewpoint shows not only the role resettlement plays for refugees themselves in providing a secure new environment, but also argues that resettlement is an expression of burden, as well as responsibility sharing within the international community, and can thus be a way forward to “unlock” protracted refugee situations.46F48 Coming out of this understanding, resettlement as a means of refugee protection in situations where no other solution is feasible has high level priority in UNHCR goals; at the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR), issues thereof, as well as resettlement numbers and admission criteria are discussed among the main stakeholders consisting of states, NGOs, the IOM and UNHCR in order to improve resettlement as a protection tool for refugees. 47F49 Indeed, this official forum serves as the most important meeting arena for above actors and is used by UNHCR as an opportunity to try to increase commitments of receiving states to step up their intake numbers. The importance of this annual conference has been recognized by UNHCR itself, stating that one of the most important outcomes of the ATCR is actually the ATCR itself, showing that through its existence global partnerships and cooperation regarding resettlement is indeed promoted. :[50]

However, the question of when resettlement is the best solution available continues to be debated: not only what counts as a “protracted situation” is subject to discussion, but also which model to follow: questions such as “How long does a refugee have to spend time in limbo (to make resettlement the best solution)?” or “What groups should be referred for group resettlement?” continue to be not clearly defined.

2.1.1. Regarding US resettlement

As stated previously, the US still stands as the most “generous” intaker of resettled refugees, far exceeding acceptance numbers of any other country.

The events of 9/11 saw US immigration policies tighten significantly, especially in the months following the attacks; this meant not only increased security screenings and other control measures, but also had direct implications for to-be resettlement cases. In fact, the US resettlement program was the only US migration program to be completely brought to a halt following 9/11, with new arrivals through resettlement being less than 800 persons for the quarter of resettlement year October to December 2001, out of a projected 14,000 arrivals.[51]

Fortunately, this proved to be only a temporary measure – admission numbers picked up quickly again, with a major boost from 28,000 intakes in FY 2002 and FY 2003, increasing to 53,000 persons in FY 2004; however, former US President Bush´s announcement aiming to increase intake numbers to 75,000 hasn’t been reached so far even under President Obama´s government. aimed at intake numbers of 75,000, this hasn’t yet been reached even under Mr. Obama`s government.

Regarding admissions from the East Asian region, almost all of admissions are at present Burmese50F52 cases (Karen and Karenni ethnic group from six of the nine Thai refugee camps, ethnic Chin refugees from Malaysia), with some minor number of remaining Vietnamese being resettled through the former Orderly Departure Program (ODP), which has been in place until 1994. Admission numbers for 2009 were therefore standing at 19,000 persons, from which Burmese refugees accounted for 17,500 places. For 2010, interviews were expanded for all of the nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border, leading to number of admissions of approx. 16,500 Burmese. Regarding ceilings by region, East Asia therefore stands at second place, only overtaken by the Near East/South Asian region with a ceiling of 35,000 places for FY 2010.553

As with all refugee admission countries, US policies and rules for acceptance vary case by case and country by country, and are subject to changes from time to time. As such, I will only briefly outline the resettlement process of US referred resettlement cases from the specific case of Burmese refugees from a Thai refugee camp. Again, policies and guidelines for other admission countries or nationalities do vary.

Firstly, getting recognized by UNHCR as a person deserving international protection is the primary prerequisite for applying for resettlement referral in any refugee case. In Thailand, however, being recognized by the government´s screening board (“Provisional Admission Board”, called PAB) comes even before UNHCR approval. Due to Thailand not having signed the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1949, as well as not having signed the Protocol of 1967, it is first and foremost at the Thai government´s discretion as to whom to admit as being a “refugee” on its territory. Therefore, even before UNHCR status, determination of the status of a person applying for refugee status has to be declared so by one of the local PABs.

Subsequently, after receiving UNHCR refugee status in one of the nine camps along the border, cases are transferred mostly by UNHCR to one of the OPEs (“Overseas Processing Entities”, now called “Resettlement Support Centers” RSCs), responsible for handling the screening and processing of resettlement cases.[54]

OPE´s are mostly NGOs or other international bodies that collect biographic information about applicants, hold interviews and other screening procedures, refer cases and prepare cases for resettlement. In the case of US resettlement, they are overseen and funded by the US Department of State´s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), which runs eight such RSCs around the world in cooperation with NGOs and other international organizations. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is primarily responsible for US resettlement from Thailand.

3. Thailand´s first challenge: Indochina refugee influx

The end of the Indochina war, with the fall of the US backed Saigon in 1975, marked the starting point of one of the largest resettlement interventions in history; not without reason the Indochina situation became one of the “loud emergencies”, as Vieira de Mello has pointed out. Media coverage was extensive, covering pictures of starving populations and desperate “boat people”. With remembrances on the Second World War still relatively fresh in mind, the generosity of the international community was accordingly wide – the Indochina crisis initiated a resettlement program which hasn’t been seen since then on a similar scale. Also, the amount of financial contributions to the UNHCR and governments of first asylum were people fled to were large-scale53F55 Out of all refugees who had been displaced from their respective countries, which amounted to approx. 3 million people, 2.5 Million were resettled worldwide with UNHCR assistance, the US being by far the largest taker with more than one million refugees54F.56 About 0,5 Million eventually returned to their country of origin.


[1] Smith/UNHCR 2010:1; exemplary case study from Tham Hin survey, see chapter 6.

[2] As allegedly happened in UNHCR Nairobi, Kenya (cf. Frederiksson 2002:3).

[3] Cf. Hammar 1997:1;21

[4] Benjamin Zawacki has covered and campaigned for this issue continuously; see e.g.,9171,447253,00.html

[5] See for example Therese M. Caouette and Mary E. Pack: “Pushing past the definitions: Migration from Burma to Thailand” (2002),,

and Margaret Green-Rauenhorst /Karen Jacobsen and Sandee Pyne: “Invisible in Thailand. Documenting the need for international protection for Burmese” (2008), Thailand.pdf

[6] Malkki 1995, cited in Fink DeVivo 2005:5

[7] Kalnin 2010:79

[8] Only quite recently in 2003 was the UNHCR declared to be continuing to exist „until the refugee problem is solved“; previously, its mandate had only been extended on a five-year basis (Goodwin-Gill 2008: n.p.).

[9] After the 1967 amendment, the definition states that “any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion” (Goodwin-Gill 2008#The Convention Refugee Definition, emphasis added by author).

[10] Fink DeVivo 2005:4

[11] Goodwin-Gill 2001:1

[12] Goodwin-Gill 2001:14

[13] Lang 2002:13ff

[14] Fink DeVivo 2005:4ff.

[15] Lang 2002:13ff

[16] Schreier 2008:55;57; Goodwin-Gill 2008

[17] Exact wording acc. to the Geneva Convention (Article 33): „No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”(Rodger 2002:II B)

[18] Rodger 2002: II B

[19] Rodger 2002: II B

[20] Loescher 2001:28

[21] Loescher et al 2008:22f

See also: Crisp, Jeff 1999: “`Who has counted the Refugees?`: UNHCR and the Politics of Numbers”, New Issue in Refugee Research, Working Paper No. 12, Geneva: UNHCR, June 1999.

[22] This shows again UNHCR´s status of being to a high degree a “playball” subject to government intentions and good-will.

[23] UNHCR 2009c:17f

[24] UNHCR 2010d:4

[25] UNHCR 2009a:1

[26] Fredriksson 2002:28f

[27] This number is based on multiple-year projections where resettlement is envisioned for the next coming years.

[28] UNHCR 2009a:4f;UNHCR 2010c:1; ECRE Newsletter July 8th 2011

[29] ECRE Newsletter July 8th 2011

[30] UNHCR 2009a:4f.; UNHCR 2010c:55

[31] UNHCR 2010c:44; US Dpt. of State, US Dpt. of Homeland Security and Dpt. of Health and Human Services Report 2008:5

[32] UNHCR 2009b:3;UNHCR 2010c:45

[33] See Appendix I for overview of submission/departure rates 2004-2010.

[34] UNHCR 2010d:56;UNHCR Fact Sheet 2011:1

[35] UNHCR 2009b:3f

[36] UNHCR 2009a:8;UNHCR 2010d:12

[37] In fact, the three nationalities compromise about ¾ of all worldwide UNHCR refugee submissions (UNHCR 2010d:46).

[38] UNHCR online, 05.07. 2010. Resettlement countries as of 2011 compromise 24 states (UNHCR 2010d:9).

[39]; Japan Today, 10.05.2011.

[40] UNHCR 2010d:8;10;46

[41] Fredriksson 2002:28f

[42] ibid.

[43] Loescher et al 2008:58f

[44] As taken as measurement by UNHCR, a refugee population of approx. 25,000 or more who live outside their home country for five or more years in a developing country. However, this measurement shouldn’t be taken as absolutely given, meaning that even smaller populations than the above number can be counted as protracted, given their duration in exile (Loescher et al 2008:21ff).

[45] Loescher et al 2008:3f

[46] ibid:27

[47] UNHCR 2009a:1

[48] UNHCR 2009a:1ff

[49] UNHCR 2010d:7

[50] ibid:16

[51] Frederiksson 2002:1

[52] A short notice on choosing the name “Burma” instead of “Myanmar”: Following the name change in July 1989 from „Union of Burma” to “Union of Myanmar” by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), what to call the county has become a sign of protest in many publications and general discussion. Several countries (the US, Australia and several European countries) have chosen to stay with the original term “Burma”, whereas the UN recognizes the name change towards “Myanmar”. I have chosen to stay with the denomination “Burma” as a more familiar form, as well as “Rangoon” instead of “Yangon” for the country´s former capital. Further, “Burmese” refers to all citizen of Burma, whereas “Burman” means only this ethnic group.

[53] US Dpt. of State, Dpt. of Homeland Security and Dpt. of Health and Human Services Report 2009:29ff.

Ceilings are, however, almost always not reached; moreover, since the beginning of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union the gap between annual ceilings and actual acceptance numbers has continued to steadily widen into the new millennium and continues to do so (see Migration Information June 2004

[54] In rare cases applicants can be referred from an US embassy or a NGO to an OPE (see Merchant, Brian April 2010:

[55] US aid to UNHCR during that time alone amounted to more than one billion US Dollar (Vieira de Mello 1987:1).

[56] Indeed, US admission numbers were record high, even surpassing Cuban intake numbers which until then, had been the far highest group of refugees admitted. Whereas immigration to the US increased during the 1970s by approx 15%, the immigration flow from Asia increased by 250% (Desbarats 1985:523f). Other resettlement countries were Australia, Canada and several Western European countries. China took in about 300,000 refugees, mainly of Chinese origin. However other Asian countries, except Japan, where rather unwilling to accept intakes (Miller/Loescher 2009:142).

Excerpt out of 116 pages


Invited but not (always) willing to go
Refugees in Tham Hin camp (Thailand) as an example of migration theories' shortcomings
University of Vienna  (International Development Studies)
Refugee studies, resettlement
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1216 KB
Masterthesis based on empirical field survey in Tham Hin camp, Thailand, between July - September 2010.
refugees, migration, resettlement, Burma, Myanmar, Thailand
Quote paper
Susanne Walter (Author), 2011, Invited but not (always) willing to go, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Invited but not (always) willing to go

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free