Livelihoods and Empowerment: A Case Study of Burmese Refugees in Thailand

 Dana MacLean, Global Education MagazineDana MacLean

Humanitarian Journalist. Freelance focused on a wide variety of topics, including food security, livelihoods, human rights issues, and natural disasters

e-mail: / web:


Abstract: The research examines the transition from emergency relief and needs-based service delivery to sustainable human rights- based action by NGOs working in ten Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, that have been in existence since the 1980s. By focusing specifically on livelihood initiatives and trainings, the research discusses the potential of livelihood projects to improve their psychosocial health and prepare them for their futures. Agricultural initiatives, vocational trainings such as sewing, hairdressing, and auto-mechanics, are all geared towards assisting refugees’ to earn their own livelihoods. Refugee livelihoods are conceptualized in this paper from a human rights based approach, which recognizes that the denial of economic, social, and cultural rights by state governments creates unnecessary suffering and dependency. The research examines in which ways livelihood programs can temporarily mitigate the consequences of the lack of legal rights.

Keywords: Refugees, livelihoods, empowerment, rights-based approach, Burmese, Thailand, camps, human rights, asylum seeker, internally displaced person.



With more than 45.2 million displaced people worldwide in 2013- the highest in 18 years according to the UN Refugee Agency (1)- and increasingly strict border controls in developed countries, the world faces a dilemma where the tension between respect for human rights is perceived to chafe with national security and economic interests. Refugees’ potential and abilities to contribute to society are frequently overlooked as country policies are frequently driven by fear of the outsider, resulting in laws that penalize and criminalize people who cross borders without legitimate travel documents, regardless of their reasons for movement. Refugees are often detained in prison-like conditions, suspected of falsehood, and forced to undergo long and stringent application processes with the UN Refugee Agency in order to achieve verified status as a refugee, which in itself provides little protection in countries that have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (2), such as Thailand. The social consequences of policies of containment (limiting refugees’ freedom of movement and rights to work) on the 160,000 Burmese refugees residing in nine camps in Thailand for more than 28 years has led to significant mental health concerns, such as depression and increased dependence on alcohol as a coping mechanism. Given the tremendous economic contribution by upwards of one million illegal Burmese migrants to the Thai economy – which was reported in 2007 to total roughly US $53 million (3) per year – forcing refugees into dependence is a waste of human productivity not to mention a denigration of human rights and social well being for the population.


The research problem was formed during a three-month ethnographic field study undertaken in 2010 with Karenni refugees from Camp 1 in Nan Soi, Mae Hong Son province, in northern Thailand, who had been there since the mid-1980s after fleeing from conflict and human rights abuses by the Burmese military in Kayah and Karen states of eastern Myanmar. It was clear that many of the social problems in the camp, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, and depression, stemmed from the negative psychological effects of prolonged encampment and aid dependency of the population.

The implementation of policies protecting the right to work and livelihoods that all human beings are entitled to (4) would alleviate those problems. The refugees’ feelings of limitation, isolation, and frustration are “normal reactions to abnormal situations (5).”

Interviews with Karenni refugees and NGOs6 staff revealed that programs increase psychosocial well-being and the sense of empowerment for refugees, maintain skills and build new capabilities for refugees to be self-sufficient in their future post-camp lives should they resettlement or repatriate to Myanmar. In addition, productivity, learning, and increased independence during exile is necessary to nourish well-being, alleviate the trauma many refugees have suffered, and enhance people’s sense of empowerment over their own lives. Providing these opportunities are thus an integral part of sustainable aid that aims to empower the populations served and not foster dependence, also known as rights-based aid.


Myanmar is currently the fifth-largest refugee-producing country in the world, after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the UNHCR report on Global Trends in 20107. The country has expelled more than 415,000 people through state-sanctioned violence, human rights abuses against civilians as a strategy of war, and an ongoing low-intensity civil war waged against ethnic groups in areas outside the capital of Yangon since the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. At the time of independence, ethnic groups were unable to achieve self-rule, and ethnic armed forces rebelled against the Burmese government’s attempt to exploit their land and control them through what has been referred to as “Burmanisation” or the control and domination of ethnic groups by the dominant Baman tribe. Human rights abuses against ethnic civilians, such as forced labour, rape, pillage, land grabbing, and exploitation were first reported in ethnic areas the 1970s and 1980s, after which more than 150,000 people8 had fled to Thailand to seek refuge in camps by 20109. The refugees have now been there for over 27 years. “Most of the refugees have grown up in the camps and are now starting their own families in the camps- all without knowing where and when they would find a solution to their plight,” (Loescher and Milner 2011: 4).


International human rights documents and conventions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention, all protect the rights of displaced people to livelihoods. But the majority of refugee hosting countries worldwide do not support this right out of a fear of the pull factor — drawing more refugees to their country. With only two countries in all of Southeast Asia as signatories, the Philippines and Cambodia, non-refoulement (the principle of not returning refugees to countries where they may face persecution) is the only customary international law binding states to respect displaced peoples’ need for safety. Even this fundamental right to asylum is not always respected, as adeptly shown by the Australian government’s decision in July 2013 to return all arrivals or transfer them to Papua New Guinea for processing.

By comparing individuals’ subjective interpretations and feelings (through interviews) with large scale data (in reports) and laws (outlined by human rights and Thai national laws), the research utilizes the triangulation approach to come up with a study that attempts to respect both the micro (individual) and macro (context) and therefore paint the human faces of displaced persons affected by factors beyond their control (conflict in Myanmar and Thai politics and law).

The areas and factors that come into play to create this complex situation- which cannot be summed up easily through a strict and applicable-to-all type of analysis- are the laws governing the camps implemented by the Thai government, the ideal laws developed by the United Nations and enshrined in human rights conventions, and the gap between the two which is the source of much suffering for the Burmese refugees.


The research procedure included seven semi-structured qualitative interviews with refugees from three different ethnic groups (Karenni, Karen and Mon), followed by four interviews with NGOs implementing livelihoods programs, an analysis of the most recent mental health survey conducted in the camps among other reports, and contextualizing the situation in the broader international legal framework for the human rights of refugees.

Social and Mental Health Issues

A number of social issues have resulted from the Thai government policy of containment and the limitation on freedom of movement to within the camps. In what some advocacy NGOs have termed “warehousing” (Debbie Stothard, Altsean Burma, 2013), refugees have suffered emotionally, mentally, and economically. The massive influxes of refugees into Thailand over the past two decades, despite Thailand’s restrictive policies for refugees and refusal to negotiate integration, show that “building walls is no answer against those who feel compelled to move,” (Loescher 1993: 9). The refugees suffer from a host of issues associated with long-term encampment, such as overcrowding, delinquency, physical abuse, alcoholism and depression as well as the threat of harassment and deportation by Thai authorities should refugees venture outside the camps seeking employment.

Social problems inside the camp stem from the frustration and boredom that is symptomatic of protracted exile with limited freedom of movement and livelihood opportunities. Alcoholism, delinquent youths, and domestic violence are all issues tied to the constraints on the refugees’ economic, social and cultural rights. “Feelings of frustration and anxiety due to the lack of meaningful activity has resulted in a rise in mental illness, gender based violence and alcohol and drug abuse,” (ADRA Thailand 2011). Many of the refugees feel disillusioned, hopeless, and show an increased likelihood to engage in activities of ‘escapism’ such as drinking alcohol and chewing betel nut. Lack of freedom of movement, educational opportunities for the extremely poor, and the refugees interviewed cited that the lack of jobs is a key sources of weariness (Anon. 2010). Those with small children, or who want to start a family, find the idea of their children growing up in the camp and suffering the same restrictions they face highly distressing. “At least we do not have fear or forced labour like inside [Myanmar] but I worry about the new generation and do not want to have babies with the situation like this,” said one woman, 27 years old, who was recently married (Anon. 2010).

In idle moments past traumas and current dilemmas surface violently, in the form of domestic abuse and destructive tendencies. The deprivation of the right to work has led to further violations, showing how human rights are interrelated and indivisible (OHCHR 2011). The restrictions on freedom of movement are described as living “in the dark, like death while you are still alive,” (Anon. 2011). Another participant noted that alcoholism had been a major cause of death in the last four funerals he had attended. “People drink too much rice wine, and so many die, some are just under seventeen years old when they start,” he said. Domestic abuse is also cited as one of the social consequences of economic deprivation and frustration. WEAVE, the women’s empowerment organization working in the camps, reports that “domestic violence is pervasive” in the camps and exacerbated by the absence of work to enable independence (Urgel 2011).

Another protection issue that is intricately linked with livelihoods and displacement is that vulnerable individuals are even more at risk of exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Women, children, disabled, and elderly persons are particularly liable to abuse (Loescher and Milner 2011). Burmese refugee women in Thailand surreptitiously leave the camps to seek wage labour and often trafficked into situations where physical and sexual abuse are rampant (Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children:2006). Roughly 40,000 women are trafficked from Burma into Thailand to work as factory workers, sex workers, and domestic workers (Ward 2005 in WRC 2009:5).

While numerous reports document the extensive gender-based violence that women face at the hands of the Burmese military before arriving in the camps, there is less information about the domestic and gender based violence inside the camps as cultural shame and impunity make it quantitative data scarce (WEAVE 2011). A study by the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium (RHRC) in 2001 did find that domestic violence and sexual assault were major concerns in Karenni and Karen camps. The Karenni National Women’s Organization estimated that up to 60 percent of women had experienced some forms of gender- based violence, with domestic fights as the main cause. “Verbal arguments flare up regularly because of poor economic conditions… wives accuse their husbands of failing to provide for the family,” according to a Karenni camp leader in the study (RHRC 2001).

In interviews for this paper, Karenni refugees also reported that the main cause for divorce in the Karenni camps is domestic violence (Anon. 2010 and King 2011). Livelihood interventions that improve living conditions invariably decrease economic-related stress. Safe economic opportunities for women decrease the risk of exposure to gender- based violence (WRC 2011) while women’s incomes raise their status in the household (WEAVE 2011). In Thailand those who leave the camps are treated like illegal immigrants, sometimes thrown into Immigration Detention Centers (IDCs), facing months in jail or hefty fines. Outside of the camps, there are an estimated 2.4 million documented and undocumented Burmese migrant workers, making up 80 percent of the migrant worker population and five percent of Thailand’s total labour force in critical industries like shrimp factories (IOM 2011). The work offered to refugees and unregistered migrants is “disgusting, dirty, or dangerous” and not up to par with the safe working conditions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) (WRC 2009: 33). An informal study conducted in Mae La camp in recent years found that up to 25 percent of refugees had been arrested and deported for illegally leaving the camp (Thompson 2011). Refugees are “obliged to go out of camps to supplement supplies thereby subjecting themselves to the dangers of arrest or assault” (BBC 2004: 114)- a problem that continues to pressure aid organizations to re-evaluate their policies and develop livelihood opportunities inside the camps.

Livelihood programs

Human beings are awe-inspiring, above the mechanical workings of nature, and yet in need of support for the fulfillment of many central projects.

—Nussbaum 2001: 73

Livelihood interventions are about empowerment, and NGOs and governments should work as facilitators for the process (Action Aid 2004). The range of vocational trainings and agricultural initiatives available to people expands their preparation for a vast array of livelihood strategies. Interventions include: organic farming, cooking, hairdressing, motorcycle repair, income generation through pig-raising and micro-credit for small shops, soapmaking and handicraft-making. In the most recently conducted NGO survey on employment, more than 50 percent of refugees in seven camps10 listed their current occupation as ‘housework’ and more than 55 percent reported having no income at all (ZOA Refugee Care 2011: 50-51). The NGO reports that while there are higher percentages of people with no income at all than in 2005, there are also higher income levels, with 30.4 percent of households earning between 500-2000 baht per month, a nearly 8 percent increase since 2005. Income generation initiatives boost incomes for those who are already working, without having a significant impact on those without any employment. Many of the other livelihoods interventions have chosen to focus on non-monetary gains, such as providing food and skills, because refugee restrictions and guiding regulations prevent them from adequately earning an income (Mendoza 2011). In the words of a former ZOA Refugee Care consultant interviewed, from a purely economic empowerment perspective, “the only way to phase out aid is if the camps were disbanded,” (Oh 2011). The material benefits may be felt in resettlement or repatriation, and in the meantime, empowerment also takes place on a non-material level.

All of the NGOs interviewed noted that livelihoods interventions improve the psychosocial health of refugees by giving them productive activities to engage in. While improving the non-material quality of life was not the original aim of the programs, with the exception of COERR’s programs for vulnerable groups which strives to provide emotional support, it is an extremely beneficial by-product that has the potential to alleviate social problems stemming from boredom and frustration (Purnell 2011) and offers a distraction and enhanced mental and physical well-being (Brees 2008). The vocational trainings expand people’s skill sets and in the future may enhance their capability to seize opportunities for various livelihoods.

On a relational level, empowerment is about enhancing people’s ability to influence the policies that affect them. The vocational trainings expand people’s skill sets and enhance capabilities to seize opportunities for various livelihoods. While the main challenge for vocational trainings has been the inability to match trainings with job opportunities upon completion of the course (Roger 2011 and Oh 2011), the recent adoption of Thai accreditation for ten of ADRA’s vocational trainings will increase the future employability of graduates and create sustainable benefits for participants in the event of a durable solution. The certification has significant weight for the future but given the policy of containment it currently carries no bearing on employability.

Micro-credit and small grants for businesses do have a current impact, however small. Despite the limited economy in the camp, a small percentage of small business owners have been able to increase their incomes as a result of TBBC’s grants. Credit is aligned with a rights-based approach more than assistance because it boosts people’s financial assets for livelihoods while “maintaining the borrower’s dignity as economic actors- not as recipients of charitable handouts,” (Jacobsen 2005: 77). In 2009, a study conducted by ECHO found that higher incomes in the camp were associated with an improved diet (DG ECHO 2009: 48) and in 2010, TBBC was able to cut down on the quantity of each ration based on the assumption that the majority of refugees are able to buy supplementary food (TBBC 2010).

A fundamental aspect of self-sufficiency is food security, meaning assuring access to safe and nutritious food. The organic agricultural programs by COERR and ZOA Refugee Care provide much needed micronutrient needs and nutrition from chemical- free vegetables, while allowing people to control a part of their food source. While programs are still far from being able to meet the feeding needs of the population, supplementing the ration while teaching farming methods, securing land for refugees, and ensuring environmental sustainability continues to foster enhanced self-reliance.

The agricultural background of the majority of refugees makes it likely that most will return to their villages in Burma to farm if they are repatriated. The farming skills and techniques that people are learning build on their existing capacities and are highly relevant for repatriation. In an informal interview with the Livelihoods Working Group Coordinator, Madeline Sahagun, she said that the agricultural programs are moving towards being able to generate an income through accruing a surplus and selling crops outside, although this is a long- term vision that has not, as of yet, come to significant fruition (2011). While programs are still far from being able to meet the feeding needs of the population, supplementing the ration while teaching farming methods, securing land for refugees, and ensuring environmental sustainability continues to contribute to an improved quality of life for the participants through diet and productivity.

Ongoing abuse and the potential for return to Myanmar

There has been much discussion between the international community, Thai government, and Myanmar government concerning the repatriation of the 150,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand since President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government came to power in Myanmar in 2011. But ongoing human rights abuses in ethnic areas, such as forced labour, rape, displacement, and portering in Kayah, Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine states, continue unabated as the army’s presence in those areas continues to disrupt the lives of local people (dm IRIN 2013). In Kayah, Karen, and Shan states, large scale hydropower and mining projects implemented by foreign corporations in cooperation with the Burmese army continue to displace local ethnic communities. Villagers are forced to abandon their land as land is “grabbed”. In addition, refugees in Thailand have concerns about being able to return to their land, much of which is rife with anti-personnel land-mines planted over the last 14 years by both ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military (dm IRIN 2013). In the past six months, there have already been numerous reports of refugees who have returned prematurely and suffered land-mine accidents.

Active conflict in Kachin and Rakhine states also continues to destabilize the peace process and any democratic reform in Myanmar. In Kachin state, conflict has been ongoing since June 2012 when the Burmese military invaded an area previously controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in order to secure the land for gold and copper mining for Chinese companies. More than 55,000 people have been displaced and continue to live in temporary shelters and camps scattered throughout the state. In Rakhine state, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims (who have been discriminated against since the inception of Myanmar as a country and prohibited from freedom of movement, access to formal employment, and having more than two children), rights groups have made vocal accusations against the government for failing to intervene, and sometimes participating, in human rights atrocities committed against the Rohingya, including the burning down of houses and destruction of property, torture, and mass violence and killings (Human Rights Watch 2013).

The general state of insecurity throughout the country, and high levels of land grabbing, development-induced displacement, and general poverty (32.8 percent of people live on less than US$1 per day), scarce government investment in education and health (0.8 percent and a mere two percent of the annual national GDP is spent on education and health, respectively) do not create a stable and human rights- promoting environment for refugees to feel safe to return to. Until land-mines are cleared, the government invests in health and education institutions, and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are respected with an end to the impunity of the military, Burmese refugees remain safer in protracted exile in Thailand. It is the responsibility of each government to provide for and respect the human rights of all persons residing within their territory; whether they are refugees, migrants, or citizens. When narrowly defined national interests dominate the dialogue and policy making regarding human rights, the international community, the UN, and NGOs must continue to encourage and assist the Thai government to provide greater freedoms and protection of all human rights to the Burmese refugees residing on Thai soil.


Income generation projects have not yet taken off the ground enough to generate sufficient income to protect refugees from leaving the camps to seek illegal employment, but they do increase food security by providing vegetables to a primarily rice-based ration while teaching valuable agricultural skills for environmental sustainability. These skills are necessary to manage natural resources in the current encampment context and can also be transplanted in Myanmar upon repatriation. The range of vocational skills trainings available builds on the human capital of refugees by diversifying their skill sets in ways that may be particularly meaningful in a context where they have the economic freedom to participate in the wider economy. Targeted vocational trainings based on market assessments of resettlement countries would have greater benefits. The relatively small percentage of refugees participating in the livelihoods programs is also a drawback, as some people are not even fully aware of ongoing projects and the benefits it could bring to them and their households. In recent UNHCR study conducted in two camps, refugees stated needs for livelihoods programs that are in fact already running currently (LWG Working Group Meeting 2011). Word of mouth is currently the most effective way of disseminating information since people are not accustomed to looking at notice boards or reading fliers and roughly one-third of refugees cannot read (Oh 2011). The reality is that despite the few legal income earning opportunities, the projects have real benefits for building skills, increasing psychosocial health, and positively affecting the sense of self-control, confidence, and leadership abilities in the small number of participants. While it may be, in the words of one former NGO consultant “a band aid instead of a solution,” (Anon. 2011) it is an attempt to take a step beyond the limited relief that can be supplied by needs-based assistance and address violations against the economic and social rights of the refugees.


This study set out to explore the ways that livelihood programs operate to improve the social and economic situation of Burmese refugees residing along the Thai-Burma border. The paper analyzed how the programs function in the limited refugee camp context and their social implications. Livelihood projects on the Thai-Burma border have all incorporated strategies to improve gender equality by targeting women and the most vulnerable, preserve the environment, and sustain and maintain peoples’ skills while economically empowering them. All of these elements are very much aligned with the rights based approach and new humanitarianism. But programs are difficult to sustain without continued funding, and cannot result in real opportunities with the current legal barriers that are associated with refugee status in Thailand. Without the opportunity to change the structural conditions of the economic deprivation in the refugee camp, the programs have little chance to economically empower the Burmese refugee populations. At the same time the maintenance and creation of skills, the accumulation of land for agricultural programs, and the shift towards refugee responsibility for land, set the foundations for sustainability. However the uncertainty about the length of stay for the refugees and durable solutions in the future makes program outcomes difficult to predict. What is clear is that the non-material benefits currently surpass the material ones, and the quality of life for the beneficiaries is improved thanks to the programs. Increased productivity, gaining diverse skill sets for livelihoods later, maintaining existing farming skills, and supplementing the ration with fresh vegetables, all contribute to enhanced physical and mental health for the households involved. While the number of participants remains less than one-third of the total population, direct and indirect beneficiaries of projects amount to nearly 44 thousand people, equally just over 27 percent of the population.

Subjective and unquantifiable outcomes, including heightened self-esteem, confidence, and leadership skills, are difficult to measure. While “assessing non-tangible outcomes, that may be very subjective and private, is a challenge,” (DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Approach 1999: 26) all of the interviewees noted that programs increased the confidence and self-esteem of participants. Psychosocial benefits also include cultivating a work ethic to counter aid dependency and engaging peoples’ productive capacity. Communal activities build social capital, or networks, which particularly benefits vulnerable and marginalized groups. Small grants have proved successful and aided a small number of refugees to start businesses, but need to be expanded to reach greater proportions of the population, with increased market access, if they are to truly have an impact. Only the sustained commitment of donors and the political will to enact policy change for greater refugee freedoms within Thailand will have a significant impact on improving the livelihoods for the large part of the population.





4UDHR, ESCR, 1951 Refugee Convention [ ]


6The following NGOs are primary stakeholders responsible for the projects: The American Refugee Committee (ARC), Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR), Solidarites International, and Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) in the nine camps distributed throughout Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang, Mae Sot, and Sangklaburi.

7 UNHCR 2011

8There are seven main persecuted ethnic minority groups: Karen, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and Chin, who make up the majority of refugees. Out of the total 148, 793 asylum seekers, most are Karen (78.9 percent), followed by Karenni (9.5 percent), and Burman (4.1 percent), with the other groups making up the remaining 7.5 percent. Karen refugees make up the majority of the population in Mae La, Upiem Mai, and Nu Po camps in Tak province, while Karennis are mostly in northern camps Ban Mai Nai Soi, Ban Mae Surin, Mae La Oon, and Mae Ra Ma Luang, in Mae Hong Son province (TBBC 2011).

9 Thai Burma Border Consortium: 2004, 2010

10 The seven camps covered by the ZOA Refugee Care survey include: Mae La, Umphiem Mai, Nu Po, Ma La Oon, Mae Ra Ma Luang, Ban Dong Yang and Tham Hin.


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  • Yoshikawa, Lynn (2011) Press Conference, Refugees International, Foreign Correspondent’s Club, 9 December 2011.

  • Yoshikawa, Lynn (2011) “Thailand: No Safe Refuge,” Refugees International, Available: [Accessed 14 December 2011].

  • ZOA Refugee Care (2010) Education Survey 2010, ZOA Refugee Care Thailand: Mae Sot.

  • ZOA Refugee Care (2010) ZOA Thailand Phase-Over Newsletter, Issue No. 1: May 2010.


Karenni Refugees, Anonymous, (2010) Interviews, with Dana MacLean, Social Development Centre, Nan Soi, Mae Hong Son, August to October 2010).

Mendoza, Ben (2011) Catholic Organization for Emergency and Refugee Relief (COERR)

Oh, Su-Ann (2011) Independent Research Consultant for ZOA Refugee Care

Purnell, Simon (2011) Consultant for ZOA Refugee Care

Roger, Honest (2011) Project Coordinator for ADRA

Sahagun, Madeline (2011) Livelihoods Working Group Coordinator

Thompson, Sally (2011) Deputy Executive Director for the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC)

Urgel, Mitos (2011) Director of WEAVE

This article was published on 10th December: Human Rights Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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