Paths to a future for youth in protracted refugee situations: a view from the Thai-Burmese border.

Author:Purkey, Mary


As youth in protracted refugee situations reach adult-hood, the challenges of providing education to them have increased. Along the Thai-Burmese border, some creative approaches are being taken in order to respond to their needs. This article describes four programs, each with a different character. Although available to relatively few, they demonstrate some roles that civil society, and in particular educators and educational institutions, can play in delivering or in ensuring access to higher education for refugee youth living in protracted situations. Most critical are creativity, flexibility, and respectful collaboration between educators and both refugee and host communities.


En matiere d'education, les difficultes des jeunes en situation de deplacement prolonge s'accroissent au fil des annees. Le long de la frontiere qui separe la Thailande et la Birmane, des mesures novatrices sont mises en oeuvre pour repondre aux besoins de ces jeunes. Cet article decrit quatre programmes, chacun ayant un aspect particulier. Meme si peu en beneficient, ces programmes revelent les fonctions que peut jouer la societe civile, en particulier les educateurs et les etablissements d'enseignement en offrant aux jeunes refugies en deplacement prolonge une education superieure ou en y assurant l'acces. Les elements primordiaux sont la creativite, la souplesse et la collaboration respectueuse entre les educateurs et la communaute des refugies et la communaute d'accueil.


To gain democracy is our responsibility. So, I want to take the responsibility for my society as much as I can. To take the responsibility we need higher education ... I'm willing to help the people who are suffering many problems when I become an educated person.--Min Ma Haw student

The Thai-Burmese border is the setting for one of the numerous protracted refugee situations in the world in which a generation of displaced youth has reached young adulthood, in most cases without legal status or basic rights such as freedom of movement or the right to work or to continue education beyond a very basic level. This situation is complicated by the fact that only the 150,000 (give or take) Karen and Karenni people who live in the nine refugee camps that dot the border are considered "refugees" under Thai government policy. (1) Another one to two million displaced Burmese live outside the camps working as illegal migrants, many in factories and fields surrounding the town of Mae Sot. (2) With them have come enough children so that the area now hosts sixty-two informal migrant schools, some with as many as four hundred students, created over the last decade by Burmese educators eager to provide a meaningful educational experience for the displaced youth. (3) As the oldest of these children reach adulthood, educational options are running out and the risk of deportation or abuse as illegal migrants looms.

This paper will describe four strategies being tried out in Mae Sot and the surrounding area in the hope of extending educational opportunity to these young adults. The common features of these programs most critical to their survival are close collaboration between educators from the international community and the displaced Burmese community, flexibility in curricula, and donor support from communities abroad. Although it is difficult to evaluate the success of programs as new as those described here, it is the thesis of this paper that the ways in which these features are managed will determine their success. Briefly, collaboration must be of a certain character whereby educators from the international community listen to and take their cue from their Burmese partners. Whatever their expertise in delivering education, "foreigners" who impose visions on communities such as the displaced Burmese educational community in Thailand rob these people, who have already lost so much, of their agency, their creativity, their right to define their own needs and aspirations. Burmese educators are generally eager to learn more about curriculum design and delivery but also understand their own culture and educational context in ways their partners cannot fully appreciate. Moreover, genuine partnership involves exchange and learning on both sides.

That said, on the ground, practical considerations necessarily take precedence and force Burmese educators to embrace flexibility in curriculum development and to take funding from whoever will provide it. Displaced communities have few resources and are often at the mercy of whatever skills their educational partners bring with them. For example, English and social science teachers and materials are more abundant than teachers of natural sciences. Thus whatever educational "vision" the Burmese may embrace, they usually have to take what is available. The same applies to funding which often comes with strings attached. This harsh reality makes the genuine effort to create a collaborative relationship (that at least aims to empower rather than impose) even more important, as well as more challenging.

In addition to the three common threads noted above (close collaboration between educators from the international community and the displaced Burmese community, flexibility in curricula, and donor support from communities abroad), also important to survival is the less common building of a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship between the educational partners and the host community. Unlike initiatives taken in some other protracted refugee situations in the world (e.g., Kenya), none of the programs described here is in a position to invite participation by Thai youth because either the legal status of the refugees is very precarious, they lack sufficient funding, or the political/social culture has not encouraged such...

To continue reading