Beyond the Refugee-Migrant Binary? Refugee Camp Residency Along the Myanmar-Thailand Border

Abstract

Processes of mixed migration beyond the reified “refugee-migrant binary” of migration studies are an empirical reality along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Utilizing a survey of 3,874 mobile individuals from Myanmar in Thailand as a case study, this paper examines the impact of past experiences of migrants on the likelihood that any one of them will reside inside a refugee camp instead of outside of one in Thailand. A dataset is constructed that specifically intersects “refugee” communities with “labor migrant” communities in order to measure the importance of factors of socioeconomic, self-identity, past persecution, and social network considerations. Though indicators like religion, ethnicity, and the fear to return are salient in the likelihood of living inside a camp, family location is the strongest single predictor variable for whether or not an individual from Myanmar will inhabit a refugee camp. Future research may benefit by researching across migrant communities normally considered disparate.

Introduction

Human mobility across the 2107-km border that separates the national states of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand is a complex affair. From a macro perspective, vast disparities in economic wealth, political governance, and social conditions be- tween the two countries for the last half-century have materialized in a movement that is primarily mono-directional—from Myanmar to Thailand. From a micro perspective, the mobile identity of individuals who move has conceptually fallen under categories as varied as refugee, labor migrant, émigré, student activist, family member, escapee, soldier, political prisoner, worker, ethnic fighter, and others. Furthermore, the social scientific argumentation as to the what, when, where, why, and how of this mobility from Myanmar to Thailand has encapsulated, at one time or another, all those traditional binaries of migration studies such as push-pull, forced-voluntary, structural-agential, political-economic, national-international, and so on. There are valid reasons to justify one identity, one concept, or one chain of events over another depending on the argument at hand. Yet, there should be one point upon which all can agree to begin this article in the realm of factuality. Regardless of what we call them or why they are there—today, more individuals from Myanmar can be found in Thailand than vice versa.

This article aims is to revisit one of those binaries of migration studies. Specifically, the refugee-migrant binary will be challenged by an exploration of factors that lead to an individual residing inside or outside a refugee camp. The dependent variable under study here is mobile location after crossing an international border.

This study is done in light of recent work that emphasizes the “mixed flows” or “mixed migration” nature of contemporary movements across borders. Utilizing the Myanmar-Thailand border as a case study, the main argument is that both the mobile self-identity and the mobile location of individuals who are normally called “refugees” and individuals who are normally called “labor migrants” intersect in complex ways beyond that normally argued by the refugee-migrant binary. What it means to be a refugee and to be a labor migrant are not mutually exclusive. These creatures of the lawyer’s, the humanitarian’s, and the social scientist’s—indeed, of the politician’s—imagination overlap in important ways. There are unquestionably good legal, humanitarian, policy, and ethical reasons to make a clear distinction between a “refugee” and a “labor migrant” at times. But in those cases where some overlap in identity and causal backdrop are observable, the researcher has an obligation to explore the empirical evidence as to just how they overlap in order to better theorize and, if possible, test claims about human mobility in a field of reality.

Rather than look at those cases where the refugee or the labor migrant fit some uncontested role, this article seeks to explore the exact opposite. More can be learnt by exploring a case where… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via the Faces of Hope Fund. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Dataset of Burmese Migration-Concept Crossover in Thailand

Abstract

Purpose of survey: Original dataset of quantitative analysis section of dissertation research for PhD in political science from Northern Illinois University. Estimated graduation date for fall 2016. Others are encouraged to use this dataset for their own research (see license below).

Description

Title: Dataset of Burmese Migration-Concept Crossover in Thailand
Researcher/Author: T. F. Rhoden
Published: 25-Nov-15
Survey period: 20-Jun-15 to 19-Oct-15

Survey location: Thai side of Thailand-Myanmar border (see dataset for specific locations).
Total surveys given out: 4,000
Total surveys answered: 3,784
Response rate: 96.85% (note that response rate will vary per individual question/data point; see dataset).
Original population: 2,629,242 (estimated number of total migrants from Myanmar in Thailand from pg. 9 of Rhoden, T. F., and Danny Unger. 2015. “No Burmese Returning: Economics across Myanmar-Thailand Border.” International Journal of East Asian Studies 19(2): 51-70. http://tinyurl.com/ow4cll7.)

Data points/observations: 50 per respondent (see codesheet).
Survey demographics: See dataset.
Languages: Survey was printed in Burmese and English. Any responses in Burmese were translated into English for ease of use here. See dataset for challenges/issues of some translations. Note that some respondents answered in Karen, which were also translated into English here.
Contact info: tfrhoden [at] niu [dot] edu

License: This dataset is under creative commons license. It is free to use in any way, including, but not limited to, academic research, governmental- and nongovernmental-organization research, journalism, and/or others. Commercial use is prohibited.

Acknowledgements

Part of this survey timeframe overlaps with financial assistance from a Boren Fellowship to learn the Sgaw dialect of the Karen language(s) in Northern Thailand. For volunteer assistance in data collection outside of the refugee camps, author would like to thank Khin Soe Mon, education program manager at Help Without Frontiers (HWF) Thailand, Naing Naing Htun and the team at Burma Migrant Teachers Association (BMTA), along with a handfull of other local Burmese- and Karen-speaking volunteers who wish to stay anonymous. For assistance in data collection inside of the refugee camps, author would like to thank Maria Clara Naranjo, instructor with Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity (KRCEE), and other research assistants who wish to keep their identity anonymous. Author would also like to thank Kyaw (David) Pyae Sone of HWF for helping with translating the Internal Review Board (IRB) forms into Burmese and Ma (Zulu) Khin with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB) with help in translating the questions on the survey from English to Burmese. Any mistakes are the author’s own.

Suggested Citation

Rhoden, T. F. 2015. “Dataset of Burmese Migration-Concept Crossover in Thailand.” ResearchGate (November 24), doi.10.13140/RG.2.1.3285.6409.

*Originally published on Research Gate by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for post via World Education. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Being a Boren: No Word for ‘Police’ in Karen

Learning the Sgaw dialect of the Karen language over the 2014–15 school year on a Boren Fellowship grant along the Thailand-Myanmar border has been a great experience for many different reasons. I wish to summarize one experience here.

I knew that there would be various challenges to learning a language that is not sponsored by a national state. What I did not expect was how much this non-state aspect of language learning would affect both the way one goes about foreign language acquisition and my own thoughts on the idea of the state itself. As someone undergoing training in an Anglo-American tradition of political science, our academic subject matter, in one way or another, is almost always about the state—that is, government, the people that are ruled by government, and all the multifarious relationships and bases of power that constitute a polity. There are more complicated ways to discuss this thing we call a state, but for here I want to focus on one challenge I stumbled across to all of this. Studying and living in a language community of around two million, which stretches over frontiers of various sorts—national, linguistic, economic, geographic, others—has provided me with more than a few opportunities of epiphanic, if perhaps naïve, clarity that otherwise would have been unavailable if one had remained stateside.

One of the more memorable Zen-like moments came as we were going over the Karen words for different professions.

My vocabulary list, created by some hapless Baptist missionary from the middle of the last century, had… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in The Mandala: Newsletter of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Beata. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. white-compass-rose-th

A Teacher’s Letters from the Thai-Burma Border

Thomas Rhoden has published a book of letters called Burmese Refugees: Letters from the Thai-Burma Border.

The American teacher spent a year in refugee camps in the Mae Sot area in one of ten camps dotted along the border. Thomas decided to give his students an assignment one afternoon but he was not prepared for what came back.

The result is a collection of stories that captures the lives of the refugees living on that border, where some 150,000 Burmese asylum seekers are waiting for a new home. Thomas says refugees there are closely monitoring news about Australia’s government’s refugee policies.

Presenter: Adelaine Ng

Speaker: Thomas Rhoden, editor of Burmese Refugees: Letters from the Thai-Burma Border.

*Original talk can be found on Radio Australia; photo credit via Virgina W. Mason, Maruesrite B. Hunsiker, and Maggie Smith at National Geographic Magazine. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Behind the Barbwire

Adventure in Thai-Burma Refugee Camp Inspire Book.

I heard the good news only days before our class graduation: There was an opportunity for me to return to Southeast Asia and work with refugee populations along the Thai-Burma border. This was in spring 2009; when the financial recession was at its nastiest and consequently not the best time to be a newly minted MBA looking for work.

I recall there being more than a few lackadaisical Thunderbirds at the graduation reception party that evening. That night I had felt myself lucky to have had found a gig that synced perfectly with my experiences before Thunderbird.

Living in a remote refugee camp does not normally register on an MBA’s list of optimal places to work after graduation. If not for a slightly bizarre desire on my own part to keep chasing one adventure after the next, I too might have found myself fi led away into a more traditional post-MBA existence.

Surprisingly, I found our MBA tool chest of skills to be extremely useful when I arrived in the refugee camp. After learning about the… [click here to continue to read full text]

thunderbird magazine

*Originally published on page 70 of Thunderbird Magazine by T. F. Rhoden (Spring 2011); photo credit for image in this re-post goes to Khin Maung Kyaw. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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