“Can you help us get to America?”

Posted on June 19, 2018

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Nine from Greensboro meet with urban refugees on a recent trip to Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by trip participant H'Lois Mlo.

“Can you help us get to America?”  

This was a question I heard over and over again on a recent trip.

In May, I joined eight other students and professionals from Greensboro on a ten-day excursion to Bangkok, Thailand, to study and learn about the refugee situation in the region.  The trip was a collaborative effort between UNC Greensboro’s Public Health Education Department and the Association for Refugee and Immigrant Service Professionals (ARSP).

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention – the international law defining and protecting the rights of refugees and those displaced – and does not recognize refugee rights.  For refugees who came into the country without proper documentation or overstay visas, this means they are considered illegal immigrants under Thai law. Those living in urban settings live largely invisible lives on the margins of Thai society.  Bangkok is home to over 8,000 urban refugees and asylum seekers from over 45 countries – including Montagnards from the highlands of Vietnam.

The Thai Royal Government has allowed the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to operate nine refugee camps along the 1,300 mile border between Thailand and Myanmar – also known as Burma.  99% of those in the camps are ethnic minorities from Burma.

Greensboro and North Carolina have direct connections with both the Montagnards and Burmese refugees.

For over 30 years, Montagnards have come to the Triad area.  Estimates put the local population between 10,000 and 20,000 – making it the largest group of Montagnards outside of Vietnam.  

Thousands have fled and continue to flee, due to ongoing harassment by the Vietnamese police and long periods of imprisonment, often due to their association with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

Over 600 Montagnards live as urban refugees in Bangkok.  Our group had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours meeting with some of the Montagnards living in the city and learning about their lives.  

As undocumented immigrants under Thai law, urban refugees are at constant risk of arrest, detention, and deportation.  They are unable to attend school, work legally, or access medical services.

Urban refugees who have been screened by UNHCR are granted refugee status obtain an ID card which can provide some protection from Thai police.  With this ID they are also eligible for charity-based support including educational access for kids and help with medical expenses.

Some families we met had been in the country only three months, while others had been there eight long years.  Many made dangerous journeys across Cambodia to come to Bangkok, only to wait in limbo while their applications to join family in the U.S. are pending.  Unable to work legally, many families are supported by money sent from U.S. family members and U.S. based churches.

“Do you have family in the US? Where?” we asked. “Yes, North Carolina!”  Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, New Bern, all over North Carolina. Brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, families that have been separated for years.  Upon return to Greensboro, our group has been making connections with the Montagnard community locally, sharing photos and greetings from loved ones long separated. 

While in Bangkok, our group met with key refugee serving agencies in the region – UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Refugee Support Center (RSC) run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Asylum Access – learning about and discussing the current refugee situation in Thailand and resettlement process.  

With U.S. priorities changing away from resettlement as a durable solution, those we spoke with at the frontlines of refugee assistance were hesitant to say that urban refugees, including the Montagnards, would be resettled anytime soon.  UNHCR and the U.S. are slowly advocating for Thailand to improve their refugee and asylum laws and explore ways of local integration for those in urban settings.

For the Burmese living in the refugee camps, it is a little bit of a different story.

After decades of civil war, more than a million Burmese refugees live in neighboring countries including Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Thailand.  Burma has one of the world’s most protracted refugee crises. At the peak, over 160,000 were living in the camps along the border. Some camps date back to 1985.

Our group was not able to make the day long trip to visit the camps but through our visits with the organizations in Bangkok we learned about the camp experience.  Registered refugees in the camps have access to basic health services and food rations. Children can go to school, and adults have potential for income generating activities.  

As refugee hotspots and global conflicts have continued to increase over the last 10 years, finite humanitarian dollars are stretched thin, decreasing support to intractable situations like the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand.  

One of the main options for those living in the camps has been resettlement to a third country.  For the last twelve years, Thailand has had one of the largest refugee resettlement programs world-wide; screening, processing and sending refugees from Burma to the U.S. and other developed countries.  The program has prioritized those who arrived in the camps prior to 2005.

The U.S. resettlement program prioritizes the most vulnerable.  Applicants go through lengthy, complicated vetting and screening, often spanning years. Over 87,000 refugees from Burma have made the United States their home.  That number includes almost 8,000 that have come to North Carolina. 

I have been working at the CNNC since 2010, and refugees from Burma living in Greensboro have been one of the largest communities I have worked with.  They have shared their life stories, their food, their culture and their hopes and dreams. I have attended a Burmese wedding and a Karen – an ethnic minority from Burma – Christmas celebration.  For much of my time at the CNNC, they have made up one of the largest populations living at our Glen Haven and Legacy Crossing Community Centers.

Over the last two years, the number of Burmese coming to the U.S. and to Greensboro has declined as the UNHCR Burmese resettlement program winds down.  

For the approximately 97,000 remaining legally in Thailand, repatriation home might be the next option.  Another one of UNHCR’s durable solutions, the safe voluntary return of refugees, requires a significant amount of diplomacy and negotiations at the state level.

Despite ongoing conflict in some regions, including the Rakhine State of Myanamar, the new Burmese government is taking steps to implement democratic and political reform.  Ongoing talks between the Myanmar government and the Thai Royal Government have led to almost 200 Karen successfully returning to new homes in seven locations throughout Burma.

As the number of people displaced by war and conflict continues to grow globally, we need creative solutions so those becoming refugees are not living in protracted situations for the next 30+ years. Just and equitable solutions are needed beyond resettlement.

Lizzie Biddle
Senior Program Coordinator, CNNC


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