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Trivia and Discussion Guide: Burma, Human Rights, and Refugees

Refugees who flee persecution and violence at the hands of the Burmese military regime must cope with the living conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries such as Thailand or Bangladesh as well as unstable legal status within those countries.  Over 700,000 refugees have fled Burma. 

However, in the past few months, both Bangladesh and Thailand have made efforts to involuntarily repatriate refugees to Burma.  These refugees return to persecution and have nowhere to live, and human rights groups have protested the repatriations as violations of international law. 

Trivia: What human rights violations do the Rohingya face at the hands of the Burmese regime?  What violations do the Karen face? 

Discussion: Under what circumstances is repatriation of refugees ethical?  What responsibilities do countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh have towards refugees?  What role can countries in close proximity to those committing human rights abuses play in combating these abuses? 

According to international law:

  • Repatriation must be voluntary
  • The forced deportation of an individual to a place where they will be exposed to a real risk of serious harm is absolutely forbidden under both customary international law and under the treaty provisions of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


Ethnic minority groups such as the Rohingya and the Karen people face violence and discrimination at the hand of the Burmese regime. 

The Rohingya:
  • The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group living in Burma’s northern Arakan state, have been the victims of targeted attacks in 1991 and 2000
  • Many are denied citizenship and face arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced eviction, and are used as forced laborers.
  • Rohingyas began fleeing Burma in the 1970s.  In 1991, over 250,000 fled to Muslim Bangladesh.
  • Currently, over 300,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
  • In these camps, refugees are being denied access to humanitarian aid by Bangladeshi authorities and there have been reports of sexual violence against women.
  • In late December 2009, Burma agreed to repatriate 9,000 Rohingyas from Bangladesh.


The Karen:
  • Karen civilians are government targets in the conflict between government forces and armed ethnic minority armies.
  • They also face forced labor, forced relocation, and rape at the hands of Burmese soldiers.
  • More than 150,000 Burmese refugees currently live in refugee camps in Thailand and an estimated 2 to 3 million more work in Thailand illegally.
  • Thailand’s human rights record has been greatly criticized by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations.
  • In early February 2010, Thailand began the repatriation of 3,000 Karen refugees who fled fighting in Burma between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). 
  • Human rights groups are concerned that the land the Karen are to resettle on is heavily mined, although the Burmese government has denied this.


Questions to consider: 

  • Is it ethical in these situations for Thailand and Bangladesh to repatriate refugees?  What burdens do the refugees place on their home countries?
  • How far do the responsibilities of countries hosting refugees extend?  How long should they be expected to host refugees, what legal status should they grant them, what resources should they devote to them?
  • Repatriating refugees does not solve the problem that is creating refugees.  What tools can these countries use to stem the flow of refugees in the first place?
  • Do countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh, living in such close proximity to a country committing human rights abuses, have a greater responsibility to take action to influence perpetrators to end these abuses?

Read more about Burmese refugees in Bangladesh- from Irrawaddy, the BBC, and Human Rights Watch. Read more about refugees in Thailand from Irrawaddy and Burma Campaign UK.

-Morgan McDaniel, STAND Burma Education Coordinator

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