For more than four decades of political instabilities, Myanmar has been a hotbed of internal and regional displacement, with millions of civilians forced to flee their homes.
The situation became worse recently. Since the military coup in February 2021, ongoing armed conflict and political instability have sent thousands of displaced civilians to cross borders to Thailand, Malaysia, and India in search of protection. An estimated 72,000 refugees have arrived in neighbouring countries over the past 24 months.
Unfortunately, for refugees from Myanmar — totalling more than 1.086 million in neighbouring countries — the likelihood of solutions such as resettlement, local integration or voluntary return in the short- or medium term is slim.
It is within this context, and in the leadup to the second Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this year, that the global community — including governments in Southeast Asia — must reinvigorate efforts to work towards solutions for displaced persons from Myanmar. Such efforts must go beyond rhetoric and generalised reaffirmations of goodwill, but rather specific and concrete commitments to expanding the protection environment available to refugees. Equally, states in the Global North should also commit to ongoing funding, technical assistance for host governments, and support for persons displaced from Myanmar in the region.
The situation in Myanmar remains characterised by ongoing and increased levels of human suffering. Across all corners of the country — but particularly in the country’s North, Northeast and Southeast — active conflict between military and non-state actors remains intense. As a result, tens of thousands of people in townships throughout the country continue to move internally and across borders in search of safety.
On top of immediate safety concerns for many, in parts of Myanmar there is also insufficient access to food, water, healthcare and core relief items. Other humanitarian concerns include an increased presence and use of improvised explosive devices, and a continuing breakdown of judicial processes and other public institutions and services. According to the 2023 Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan, 4.5 million people inside the country require life-saving humanitarian support.
In this light, it is unrealistic to expect or envisage a situation whereby a majority of refugees should, or even could return. Instead, the focus should be placed on host countries, ensuring refugees have access to fundamental human rights, basic services, and tools for successful return when return is possible.
The political and humanitarian dynamics in Myanmar are not expected to improve in the near term. As such, it is incumbent upon host states such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India to come up with pragmatic, humanitarian, and strategic approaches to supporting refugees within their borders. Such support can and should stretch over a range of areas, from healthcare to education, alternatives to detention, and access to livelihoods.
Some of this work has already commenced. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, authorities — in partnership with strategic civil society partners — have begun to work through some of the governments’ sensitivities as it relates to detention, and in some cases operate relatively effective programmes that seek to eliminate detention for refugees. With greater donor support, cross-regional learning and continued government engagement, this has the capacity for even further expansion.
A further space whereby governments in the region have the potential to continue to support refugees is through access to education at all levels. At present, two-thirds of refugee children in Asia do not attend formal primary education. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, this stands at 6%, 13% and 2%, respectively. These staggeringly low figures undermine community resilience and preclude refugees from accessing the complete knowledge and skills needed to live fulfilling lives. Through continued investment with the private sector, governments, academia and institutions like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there remains great potential for states to achieve the target of "education for all" under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Global and regional attention towards refugees from Myanmar remains limited. Despite the humanitarian needs increasing, funding to support displaced communities in the region is waning. With crises in Ukraine and elsewhere, the struggles in Myanmar are simply unable to capture the attention of political decision-makers.
However, with refugees from Myanmar comprising almost half of all refugees in Southeast Asia, the scope for change and positive impact is immense. Should there be a coordinated approach by donors, United Nations agencies, NGOs, host governments and resettlement states, solutions are within reach for these populations. By collecting and strategically engaging in discussions of resources, investment, spaces for political engagement, stakeholders within and outside the region can make tangible changes to the lives of generations of refugees from Myanmar.
The protracted nature of displacement from Myanmar can no longer be ignored, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us all to come together for collective and coordinated commitments and pledges for action. Whether it be through increased resettlement, streamlined access to higher education, protection from arrest and deportation, or other pledges, the time is ripe, and it should not be chalked down in history as another missed opportunity.
Evan Jones is the manager of the Asia Displacement Solutions Platform (ADSP), a partner in the Supporting Humanitarian and Refugee Protection (SHARP) in Asia project. He is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.