As the price of rice rises and refugee rations decrease, a vulnerable people will starve
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, April 27, 2008
While Canada congratulates itself on rescuing a few thousand refugees from the Thailand-Burma border, it seems willing to watch 140,000 starve, as rice prices threaten to shrink their rations to nearly nothing.
What's more, Canada and other resettlement countries are unwittingly making life even more difficult for those left behind in the camps.
Burma is the source of a number of refugee populations throughout Asia. On the Thailand border, many refugees are from the Karen minority. Thailand refuses to allow most refugees to enter mainstream society and find work.
So the Karen families have been stuck in the camps for years, relying on food rations and watching for the Burmese soldiers that are still close enough to shoot.
Over the last couple of years, Canada's resettlement program has had many successes. The faces of the Karen people I've met in Ottawa are still lined with worry, but you can also see relief: their children are safe. The program should continue.
But even good policies can have unintended consequences.
Most of the work in the camps is done by the refugees themselves. Here's the problem: the refugees most likely to choose resettlement to countries such as Canada are the most experienced and educated: the teachers and medical workers.
Jack Dunford is the executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which gets food and blankets into the camps. He estimates that the camps are in the midst of losing 70 per cent of their skilled workers.
In the meantime, the resettlement isn't easing the pressure the way you might think it would. While tens of thousands of refugees are making their way to North America and Europe, about 4,000 babies are born in the camps every year, and another 4,000 or so refugees arrive every year from a civil war in Burma that won't end.
The military government has finally gained much of the territory near the Thai border, and now it's consolidating control. That means a whole spectrum of repression for Karen farmers: from holes in their cooking pots, to land mines, to forced labour, to burned villages, to rape, to shooting on sight.
Donors are tired of feeding refugees from one of the world's longest-running crises. The aid organizations have already cut every "luxury" (i.e., mosquito nets) they can.
Just when it seems things can't get any worse, world food prices go through the roof.
In January, the consortium was paying about $350 Canadian per tonne of rice. On Thursday, the price hit $1,000 a tonne.
Mr. Dunford has been working in the border area since 1984. "We've seen our ups and downs and crises in the past, but this is on a different scale." He compares it to a natural disaster -- that's how fast and how damaging the inflation has been.
With one difference: donor countries are quick to respond to natural disasters. Mr. Dunford was in Ottawa recently, cap in hand, trying to fill this year's funding gap, which will be at least $7 million. He's gone to other donor countries too; Ireland and the Netherlands have pledged a total of about $1.3 million. As I write, he still hasn't got a pledge from Canada's government. (Individuals can donate, too, at tbbc.org.)
If he doesn't get the money by June, the consortium will start cutting rations.
The current daily ration is 2,126 calories, consisting of rice, beans, fish paste, oil, chilies, salt, sugar and fortified flour. If prices stay where they are now, each refugee will be limited to 944 calories a day, and the rations will consist only of rice and salt. If prices keep increasing, the ration will go to 555 calories a day.
The likely result: malnutrition, starvation and desperate people leaving the camps to make money in Thailand, illegally, any way they can.
Canada is deeply involved in these camps already, through aid support and through the resettlement program. It can't ignore the starvation of the friends and relatives of the new Karen Canadians. And it must come to grips with the fact that there will always be a constant stream of refugees into these camps, so long as Burma is under thug rule.
On May 10, Burma's people will vote -- or will at least appear to vote -- on a new sham constitution that entrenches military rule. It could be the focus for another uprising in Burma, especially given the Olympic spotlight on the military government's big ally, China.
It's also worth remembering the September uprising was sparked by inflation. This food crisis could be enough to set the country alight.
Larry Bagnell, the Liberal member of Parliament for the Yukon, is the chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma. In January, he visited the camps in Thailand, and met with many activists and community leaders.
"Resistance is not dead," he reports. "The September uprising engaged a whole new generation of students."
Mr. Bagnell has a booklet that bears the title The Constitution of the Federal Republic of the Union of Burma (First Draft). Burma's many pro-democracy groups are collaborating on creating an alternative to the generals' constitution. To Mr. Bagnell, such efforts at legal reform represent one more way -- and there are many -- Canada can help the cause of freedom in Burma.
Only when freedom comes will the camps stop filling up. Until then, we have a moral duty to keep alive the people we can't rescue.
Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.
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