The Burmese military regime’s widespread and systematic abuse of human rights has caused millions of people in Burma to flee their homes, resulting in large populations of refugees and stateless people on Burma’s borders with neighbouring countries as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country itself.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Burma is the largest source of refugees in Southeast Asia. It is estimated that since 1990 almost two million people have fled Burma because of military offensives, human rights abuses and, religious and ethnic persecution. The main Burmese refugee populations are in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh. However, some of these countries are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, leaving Burmese refugees with little protection or recognition of their rights.

In Thailand, there are approximately 150,000 UNHCR-recognised refugees living in nine border camps, many seeking resettlement in a third country. Since 2004, over 57,000 refugees from these camps have been resettled in countries like Australia, New Zealand, United States, and Norway. In Malaysia, there were 65,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers from Burma as of November 2009.  In Bangladesh, as of the end of 2008, some 28,000 UNHCR-registered Rohingya refugees were living in two government camps in Cox’s Bazar on the country’s southeast coast. Most Burmese refugees in India live in the Northeastern states bordering Burma, as well as in Delhi. At the end of 2008, there were about 1,960 UNHCR-registered Burmese refugees. However, the Chin Human Rights Organisation’s April 2009 report estimated that there were about 100,000 unregistered Chin refugees in India’s Mizoram State alone. There are another 4,200 Chin in Delhi.

Where there are no refugee camps, refugees receive little support and are routinely subject to detention, discrimination, harassment and exploitative working conditions and are vulnerable to the spread of communicable diseases including tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The Shan ethnic peoples are not officially recognised as refugees and cannot avail of humanitarian assistance. The Shan people are forced to either live in hiding as illegal persons or seek work as migrant workers in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in construction, factories or as domestic workers. The Shan asylum seekers live in constant fear of being arrested and deported to Burma, where they face persecution in the form of torture, rape and death on their return.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Burma has a large internally displaced population, belonging primarily to ethnic minority groups. It is estimated that over a million people are currently displaced in Burma and of those, approximately 500,000 people are internally displaced in the rural areas of eastern Burma.

Violations carried out by the military in ethnic minority areas include persecution, torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, forcible conscription of children into the armed forces, widespread rape, demolition of places of worship, forced relocation, and forced labour. Since 1995, the Burmese army has doubled its number of battalions deployed across eastern Burma. The junta’s so-called “Four Cuts” policy aims to undermine ethnic opposition groups’ access to supplies, information, recruits and finances by forcibly relocating villagers from their homes to military-controlled areas. Increasing pressure on ceasefire groups to transform into Border Guard Forces resulted in the resumption of hostilities in some regions, and raised fears about Burmese Army deployments into other border areas.

Essential food utensils destroyed during a military attack

Local humanitarian and human rights groups have documented the destruction and forced relocation of over 3,500 villages and hiding sites in eastern Burma since 1996, including at least 75,000 people between August 2008 and July 2009, mostly in northern Karen state and southern Shan state.

The causes of displacement are not restricted to conflict alone. Hundreds of thousands of people, all over the country, have been displaced by the military to make way for large-scale development and infrastructure projects, and schemes to resettle the urban poor.

More than 75,000 Burmese have been displaced for hydroelectric dam projects. Whole villages are displaced when the government uses the land on the banks of major rivers such as the Salween River, to build infrastructure and hydroelectric power stations. The Yadana natural gas project, one of the world’s most controversial gas development projects, has been associated with serious and widespread human right abuses such as forced labour, land confiscation, forced relocation, rape, torture, murder. Rather than alleviate poverty, coercive state-sponsored development projects induce the collapse of livelihoods and leave households no choice but to leave their homes. They rarely, if ever, are compensated for the loss of their homes, land and livelihood.

The Rohingya, a Muslim population living mainly in northern Arakan state in western Burma, stand out for their particularly harsh treatment by Burmese authorities and their invisibility as a persecuted minority. Citizenship law has rendered most of the 750,000-strong Rohingya community stateless, and especially harsh abuses and restrictions on education, livelihood and marriage has caused huge displacement.

Displaced persons are particularly vulnerable to disease and ill-health, violence, and trafficking, and they have reduced access to food sources, health services, education and employment.

Burma Action Ireland

PO Box 6786, Dublin 1, IRELAND email: web: