Angelina Jolie has spent this year’s World Refugee Day with Karenni refugees from Myanmar – one of the longest-running refugee situations in the world. An estimated 120,000 Myanmar refugees live in nine border camps in Thailand today, some for as long as 30 years.
On her fourth visit to the refugee camps in Thailand, she had met Baw Meh’s family, three generations of refugees who have lived in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp since 1996. The family had fled Myanmar’s Kayah state thinking they would return home shortly. Eighteen years later, they are still here.
Baw Meh, 75, lost her husband 2013. He died before he could fulfill his dream of returning home. Some of their children and grandchildren have been resettled to third countries. Others have chosen to stay. Baw Meh has refused to go, preferring to stay close to her village. Like many refugees along the border, her family is watching the reform process in Myanmar closely.
As they mull the prospect of eventual return, Angelina Jolie had a strong message for them: “At the end of the day, you will need to make the choices that are right for your families. UNHCR is here to listen to you, to guide you, and to help you prepare for life beyond the camps.”
Since 2005, a large-scale resettlement program has allowed 90,000 Myanmar refugees in these camps to restart their lives in countries such as the United States, Australia and Sweden. Those who remain are wondering if reforms in Myanmar could pave the way for return.
“After helping the refugees to survive in exile for three decades, the international community cannot fail them at this critical time."
Angelina Jolie highlighted the need to equip the refugees with skills and education to embrace their future and to help Myanmar prepare for safe and sustainable returns when conditions are conducive.
“After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward. This is our chance to get it right, to break the vicious cycle of conflict and displacement once and for all.”
By the end of 2013, Afghans, Syrians and Somalis were the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care. Of the top-three source countries for refugees, Afghanistan and Somalia have struggled with conflict for 35 and 23 years respectively, while Syria has entered its fourth year of fighting.