Brain Drain in Burmese Refugee Camps

When third-country resettlement for Burmese refugees living in Thailand started in 2005, all 50 teachers at the Tham Hin refugee camp’s school had to be replaced.

There are numerous other examples of refugees in the 10 camps along the Thai-Burmese border being trained up to serve in schools or medical facilities, only to leave for third countries without warning.

Mae Tao Clinic, which serves refugees and internally displaced persons, has lost 200 staff members to resettlement, while the International Rescue Committee (IRC) lost 400 - 80 percent of its camp-based staff, many of them health workers; some with 10 years of work experience.

Today, among the nearly 150,000 residents still living in the camps, the sentiment is bittersweet: On the one hand, 72,000 Burmese refugees who had suffered decades of stateless limbo finally have a home. On the other, resettlement has caused an enormous vacuum in the ethnic Karen refugee community, which has long taken pride in managing, teaching and providing care for its own.

“Other refugee camps are administered by host governments, UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] or other NGOs. We have the opportunity to govern our own people,” said George (who goes by one name only), secretary of the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), which oversees seven camps along the 1,800km border.

“When resettlement started, because of the brain drain, we have had difficulties with the health sector, education sector and camp management sector. Most of the young people who have capacity or skills left their camps for resettlement. The rest are unskilled and old people.

“We are now facing problems because in the KRC committee, we have a lot of elderly people, like me. I’m now 60. If I were born in your country, I would retire or resign. We need to balance the young and the old on our committee.”

Adaptation strategies

According to the International Organization for Migration, an estimated 9,000 refugees will be resettled this year, and another 10,000 in 2012. Most end up in the USA, Australia and Canada. Camp-based and international organizations, meanwhile, are learning to cope with the loss.

“For the first two-three years, we were playing catch up, because people would be gone, and we were losing institutional knowledge,” said Sally Thompson, deputy executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of NGOs working along the border.

“That has now slowed down. Gradually others have been trained to take their places, and so programmes have been able to adapt.”

The KRC’s education arm - including 1,500 teachers for 36,000 kindergarten to grade 12 students - launched a one-month teacher training crash course and changed its policy to allow those who complete middle school to teach grades one to six.

The Karen Student Network Group - young community organizers - flattened its hierarchy, allowing lower-ranking members to make decisions so that when its 30-year-old president, Poe Shan, left for Canada in September, others could more easily step into his shoes.

IRC, whose mandate is to assist refugees, expected their health workers to be among the first to leave, and prepared well in advance by ramping up its 18-month medical training programme. However, many staff these days require more on-the-job mentoring and coaching.

“One of the biggest challenges is having a brand new workforce made up primarily of well-meaning, well-intentioned, but very young and new health services staff,” said Christine Petrie, IRC’s deputy director of programmes. “It’s more labour intensive for us. They’re young and experienced, having gone through training, but they need lots of support.”

Trainees commit to staying… temporarily

Eh Thwa, the training manager and volunteer coordinator for Mae Tao Clinic, spent two years training a man who resettled in the UK, and a year with a woman who moved to the USA. Another man whom she trained for a few months failed to show up for work one day.

“He resettled, but I don’t know to what country. He didn’t tell me. I only heard after he left already. A boy in his dormitory told me,” she said. “This is very frustrating.”

Those who enrol in Mae Tao Clinic’s training programmes now have to work at the clinic for a minimum of two years. A guarantor who co-signs the enrolment forms has to pay a 5,000 baht (US$165) fee if the trainee leaves, though Eh Thwa acknowledges that losing staff to resettlement is ultimately good.

“People who live here do not have ID cards. They are not recognized by Thailand or Burma. We cannot say, ‘work here at Mae Tao Clinic, do not leave’. Maybe one day their children will finish university and can come back and serve the community.”

(Contributed by IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis)