Thousands of people packed away into nine different camps for three decades. Half of the camps are filled with refugees born there, never knowing the homeland their families fled from. The people are all unwanted, uncared for and in the way.
That’s how four Linfield students and Patrick Cottrell, assistant professor of political science, found Burma refugees after traveling to Thailand for the summer.
The group shared its research in a lecture Oct. 1, discussing the effects of political oppression, violence and lack of economic opportunity on the refugees in Thailand.
According to Cottrell, refugees, migrants and internally displaced people are three basic populations affected by the political turmoil in Burma. The Linfield research group spent its time with the refugees researching how and why their lives had been altered.
“A refugee is a social category constructed by the international humanitarian community,” Cottrell said. “You are a refugee if the United Nations tells you are a refugee.”
The legal definition of a refugee states that they are a person with a “well-founded fear of persecution,” which can be subjective at times, according to Cottrell.
More Burma refugees are escaping to Thailand and being denied acknowledgment as refugees, further limiting the rights they have.
“It was interesting to learn how half the refugees were not registered and did not have the same rights as registered refugees,” said junior Sam Gaukshim, who felt the lecture discussed a situation many people are not aware of.
Refugees are not the only ones caught in a state of limbo as they find themselves torn between two countries. Donors are beginning to feel trapped in the middle too.
“[The donors] are accountable to the population that are being affected,” Cottrell said.
Donors are beginning to look at accountability when interacting with refugees, waiting for results to demonstrate that what they are doing will help. Until that is clear, donors are restless with how to contribute their money and time.
“I never recognized how far-reaching the problem was and how much it affected everybody who was even somewhat related to the situation,” sophomore Andra Kovacs said.
The takeaway from the lecture was not all trouble for the Burma refugees—hope comes in the form of a future with more options.
Through repatriation, refugees are able to return safely to their place of origin. However, Burma is continuing to demonstrate that it is an unstable society that is unfit to come back to. Local integration is also no longer an option, as Thailand does not want the refugees to stay there, Cottrell said.
Instead, many refugees are turning toward resettlement as a solution. Although this solution also has downsides—many countries only wish to take a core group of refugees with skills sets valuable to that society—it is the beginning of a better future for many refugees who have nothing left.
“What’s happening right now along the borders could not be further from the truth of having a safe condition for them,” Cottrell said. “If there’s one thing that everyone agrees on, that is that the only durable solution is a politically stable Burma where minority populations can thrive.”
Samantha Sigler can be reached at