Myanmar is a major source country of refugees, and has been for decades. Hundreds of thousands of people have sought sanctuary abroad, driven by factors that include:
- Protracted armed conflict
- Human-rights abuses
- Political repression, and
- Natural disasters.
At the end of 2015, the refugee population from Myanmar was estimated at 451,800. This made it the eighth-largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia host the majority of refugees and people seeking asylum from Myanmar. Many of them are not recognized under domestic laws in these countries and lack access to employment, education and affordable health services.
A major factor causing displacement is long-running conflict between the Myanmar army and non-state armed groups. This conflict has dogged the country since independence in 1948, and has displaced large populations in ethnic-minority regions of Myanmar. These regions have also been significantly affected by communal violence.
As of December 2016, around 218,000 displaced people were living in camps or camp-like situations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Of these, 78 per cent are women and children, and they are largely dependent on humanitarian aid.
Myanmar is also highly vulnerable to natural disasters, including floods, landslides, cyclones and earthquakes. These have periodically devastated swathes of the country and caused significant temporary displacement. In mid-2015, flooding and landslides struck 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, displacing up to 1.7 million people. This was regarded as the country’s worst disaster since 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed more than 138,000 people.
The Rohingya people are a stateless minority who have been subjected to discriminatory policies and practices in Myanmar for decades. The UNHCR estimates that over 168,000 Rohingya fled the country by land and sea from 2012 to the end of 2016. This includes:
- 112,500 people in Malaysia
- 43,000 in Bangladesh, and
- 13,000 in India.
In 2012 there were two major waves of violence between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. This has left over 120,000 people confined to squalid camps. The overwhelming majority of those displaced are Rohingya, alongside smaller numbers of ethnic Rakhine and Kaman.
The latest mass exodus of civilians occurred after an attack by militants on border police posts in northern Rakhine State in October and November 2016. This prompted a violent crackdown by Myanmar authorities. More than 70,000 Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh following the military crackdown.
In February 2017, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report on the army’s security operations, based on interviews with Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh. The report documents harrowing accounts of sexual violence, killings, disappearances and other grave human-rights abuses perpetrated by Myanmar’s military against Rohingya civilians.
In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council voted to dispatch an international fact-finding commission to investigate the alleged atrocities.
Internal displacement in conflict areas
In Kachin and northern Shan states, just under 100,000 people remain internally displaced due to conflict, according to the UNHCR. The majority live in temporary camps along the border with China. Around half of those displaced are in areas beyond government control, with limited access to humanitarian aid. Many have been living in the temporary camps since June 2011, when a 17-year-old ceasefire between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Organization broke down.
Sporadic conflict in the region between the Myanmar army and several ethnic armed groups has continued in 2017. This is despite an ongoing peace process that began under the quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein (2011-16) and continues under the current administration. OCHA noted in December 2016 that ongoing fighting has caused new and secondary displacement, “putting many civilians at risk, with allegations of continued human rights violations.”
Key countries of asylum
As of March 2017, over 102,000 refugees from Myanmar were living in nine camps in Thailand close to the border with Myanmar, according to UNHCR statistics. Of this number:
- 83 per cent are ethnic Karen
- 10 per cent are Karenni, and
- 7 percent are Burman, Mon or of another ethnicity.
Many refugees have lived in the camps for decades awaiting a durable protection solution, after escaping conflict in southeast Myanmar. Funding for the camps has dried up in recent years, with international aid donors shifting their focus to projects inside Myanmar since political and economic reforms began in 2011.
Between 2005 and February 2017, a total of 106,446 Myanmar refugees who were previously in the Thailand camps have resettled in third countries, according to the UNHCR. Australia resettled 11,720 people from 2005-16. This is the second-largest number behind the United States (83,718 people).
In 2015 the Myanmar government and a limited number of non-state armed groups signed a so-called “nationwide ceasefire agreement.” Since then, governments, international organizations and affected communities have considered steps toward repatriation. In October 2016, 71 refugees returned from Thailand to Myanmar. The UNHCR described this as the first voluntary return organized by the governments of the two countries in over 30 years.
However, major challenges remain for those refugees considering returning to Myanmar, including:
- The presence of landmines
- Ongoing militarization
- A lack of livelihood opportunities
- Issues over land rights, and
- The potential for renewed conflict, given the shaky foundations of the ongoing peace process
An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh as of March 2017. Many of these refugees fled violence and abuse in Myanmar dating back to at least the early 1990s.
Only around 33,000 people living in two camps near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border are registered as refugees by the UNHCR. Persecuted in Myanmar and with no legal rights in Bangladesh, the displaced Rohingya population are living in legal limbo on the margins of society.
Rights groups have also accused the Bangladeshi government of impeding the provision of humanitarian aid, and forcing Rohingya people seeking asylum to flee back to Myanmar.
As of March 2017, Malaysia hosted an estimated 134,175 registered refugees and people seeking asylum from Myanmar. According to UNHCR statistics, this includes (among others):
- Around 57,600 Rohingya
- Almost 40,000 Chin, and
- Almost 4,500 Rakhine.
In addition, the UNHCR estimates there may be more than 40,000 unregistered Rohingya living in Malaysia. Lacking recognition under domestic law, refugees in Malaysia are at risk of arrest, detention and deportation. Those working informally to survive are also at high risk of exploitation and abuse by employers.
In a small sign of progress in early 2017, the Malaysian government and the UNHCR initiated a pilot scheme for a small group of Rohingya to work legally at selected companies in the country.
Myanmar refugees in Australia
As of June 2014, an estimated 29,300 people from Myanmar were living in Australia. The majority of these arrived through Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, according to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Each year since at least 2006, Myanmar has been among the top three countries of origin for people granted visas under the offshore component of the program.
Since 2006, Australia has resettled more than 20,000 Myanmar refugees under the offshore humanitarian program. This may include cases referred to Australia by the UNHCR and cases accepted through the Special Humanitarian Programme, where people are sponsored by an Australian individual or organisation.
Smaller numbers have also received visas under the onshore protection component. The table below (compiled from Department of Immigration and Border Protection annual reports on Australia’s offshore humanitarian program) gives details of the number of Myanmar refugees resettled in Australia in the past decade.
Resettlement to Australia of refugees from Burma, 2006-2018
|Year||Visas granted||% of total visas granted|
However, in contrast to its resettlement program, the Australian government has been far less responsive to the ongoing Rohingya exodus.
In May 2015, smugglers abandoned thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and people seeking asylum on overcrowded vessels in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. However, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott infamously ruled out resettling any of the Rohingya refugees, with the words: “Nope, nope, nope.”
In November 2014 the Australian government announced that it would not resettle any refugees registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014. This effectively denied the opportunity to resettle in Australia for many refugees hosted by Indonesia, including hundreds of Rohingya.
Myanmar community organizations in Australia
There are a range of Myanmar community organizations in Australia that support new arrivals, help build community connections and hold various cultural events. These organizations also raise awareness of issues and developments in Myanmar. Among them are:
- Australian Karen Organization
- Australian Karen Foundation
- Karen Culture and Social Support Foundation
- Kachin Association of Australia
- Australian Burmese Rohingya Organization
- Australia Chin Community
- Chin Community Victoria
- Australia-Burma Society
- Burmese Association of Western Australia
- Zo Community Australia