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Refugee Policy as Border Governance: Refugee return, peacebuilding, and Myanmar's politics of transition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2021

University of East Anglia Email:


Refugees have been largely overlooked in analyses of Myanmar's transition, apparently considered peripheral to more prominent topics such as negotiation with armed groups, economic reform, and political elections. By analysing approaches to return and repatriation in three distinct contexts—refugees in camps in Thailand, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Chin refugees in Malaysia and India—this article shows that proposals for the return and repatriation of refugees are a form of ‘border governance' (that is, governance in, of, and through borders). This operates at three scales: (1) global border control by keeping refugees in their region of origin or returning them to their country of origin, (2) national border control by reinforcing boundaries between Myanmar and its surrounding states, and (3) the governance of political transition by reinforcing the Myanmar government’s narrative of peacebuilding by recasting continuing conflict as conditions suitable for refugee return. Premature promotion of repatriation has a number of harmful outcomes for refugee communities: encouraging the withdrawal of international aid, escalating fear and uncertainty, and political bolstering of a Bamar-dominated government and military vis-a-vis ethnic minority groups. This analysis supports a broader understanding of repatriation and its consequences, recognising that the promotion of refugee return can have significant political implications that are apparent even before mass returns have been carried out and which may reverberate far into the future.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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I am grateful to the University of Warwick School of Law for supporting the workshop on Border Governance in April 2018 at which this article was first presented, and to all the participants in that workshop for their comments and contributions. Sincere thanks also to the audience at the Refugee Law Initiative public seminar in February 2019 and to Norbert Peabody and the peer reviewers at Modern Asian Studies for comments that have informed and improved the final article.


1 See further the introduction to this special issue: Kirsten McConnachie, Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho and Helene M. Kyed, Border Governance: Reframing Political Transition in Myanmar and Beyond.

2 Cheesman, N. (2017), How in Myanmar ‘National Races’ Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya, Journal of Contemporary Asia Vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 461483CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wade, Francis (2017), Myanmar's Enemy within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’. (London: Zed), pp. 4752Google Scholar.

3 In April 2020, the most recent UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) figures counted 859,808 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar in Bangladesh, 178,990 in Malaysia, and 93,227 refugees in camps in Thailand. See, [accessed 30 October 2020]. These figures are likely to underestimate the true population in each case. In 2018, the IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) estimated that there were 401,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar; more than 200,000 fewer than its 2017 estimate of 635,000. The reason for this reduction is not clear. The IDMC notes that ‘TBC [The Border Consortium] released a comprehensive report on internal displacement in south-eastern Myanmar in 2018, its first since 2012. The updated figure for this region indicates that there are fewer IDPs in the region than there were in 2012. This lower estimate for south-eastern Myanmar is the main factor in IDMC's 2018 estimate being nearly 234,000 lower than in 2017. It is unclear, however, if TBC's figure decreased mainly due to its reduced coverage of Shan South or because of new resettlements and returns.’ IDMC, Figure Analysis for 2018, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

4 Carr, T. (2018), Supporting the Transition: Understanding Aid to Myanmar since 2011, San Francisco: Asia FoundationGoogle Scholar.

5 European Court of Auditors (2018), Special Report: EU Assistance to Myanmar/Burma, Luxembourg: European Union, p. 9.

6 The term ‘triple transition’ was coined by the World Bank (2012), Interim Strategy Note for Myanmar.

7 From US$36.9 billion to US$67.07 billion. World Bank, Myanmar Country Data, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

8 Stokke, K., Vakulchuk, R. and Øverland, I. (2018), Myanmar: A Political Economy Analysis, Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign AffairsGoogle Scholar.

9 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2019), End of Mission Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar.

10 Stokke et al., Myanmar, p. xi.

11 The original signatories were: the Karen National Union, Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Arakan Liberation Party, All-Burma Students Democratic Front, Chin National Front, Pa-O National Liberation Organisation, and Restoration Council Shan State. The New Mon State Party and Lahu Democratic Union signed in February 2018.

12 Furthermore, the NCA offers little to address the needs of refugees and displaced persons. Displacement is mentioned in Article 10 on ‘the provision of humanitarian assistance’, with reference to coordination between government ministries, ethnic armed organizations, and local organizations in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and requiring that they ‘ensure the safety and dignity of the IDPs when undertaking a prioritized voluntary return of IDPs to their places of origin or resettlement of IDPs into new villages in suitable areas’ and ‘collaborate on the resettlement process including verification of IDPs and refugees’. The full text of the NCA is available at Myanmar Peace Monitor:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

13 Human Rights Council (2018), Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, A/HRC/39/64, paras. 100–117.

14 Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v Myanmar), Order of Provisional Measures, 23 January 2020; Decision Pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute on the Authorisation of an Investigation into the Situation in the People's Republic of Bangladesh/Republic of the Union of Myanmar, ICC-01/19-27.

15 See USAID, Where We Work: Burma:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

16 For example, D. Brenner and S. Schullman (2019), Myanmar's Top-Down Transition: Challenges for Civil Society, IDS Bulletin Vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 17–36.

17 For example, Burma Campaign UK's evidence to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee in October 2011, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020]: ‘DFID and the rest of the international community do not do enough to challenge the restrictions on humanitarian assistance imposed by the government of Burma. Restrictions are routinely raised in meetings, but tend to be one of many talking points. There is no coordinated international pressure on this issue.’ The preference of senior UN officials and the UN Mission to engage with the Myanmar government rather than challenge its actions is analysed in G. Rosenthal (2019), A Brief and Independent Enquiry into the Involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar 2012–2018, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

18 Ferguson, J. (1994), The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota PressGoogle Scholar.

19 Stokke et al., Myanmar, p. xix.

20 Twa, P. Sein (2015), Inclusivity and the Peace Process in Burma/Myanmar—Perspectives of an Ethnic Leader and a Civil Society Activist, Development Dialogue Vol. 3, pp. 119130, at p. 130Google Scholar, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

22 K. Long (2013), Back to Where You Once Belonged: A Historical Review of UNHCR Policy and Practice on Repatriation, Geneva: UNHCR Policy and Evaluation Unit, p. 1.

23 See, for example, UNHCR (2004), Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities; UNHCR (1996), Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation. Repatriation is envisaged in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and in the 1950 Statute of the UNHCR. ‘Voluntary’ is specified only in UNHCR statute. It was also used in General Assembly Resolution 8(1) on the ‘Question of Refugees’ (1946) and in countless UNHCR texts and documents thereafter.

24 Crisp, J. and Long, K. (2018), Safe and Voluntary Refugee Repatriation: From Principle to Practice, Journal on Migration and Human Security Vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 141147CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Malkki, L. (1992), National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees, Cultural Anthropology Vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 2244, at p. 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Douglas, M. (2002 [1966]), Purity and Danger, Abingdon: Routledge ClassicsGoogle Scholar.

26 P. Johansson (2010), Peace by Repatriation: Concepts, Cases and Conditions, PhD thesis, University of Umeå; Albert, S. (1997), The Return of Refugees to Bosnia-Herzegovina: Peacebuilding with People, International Peacekeeping Vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 The ‘Four Rs’ approach is set out in UNHCR (2003), Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern. The current approach is set out in UNHCR (2008), UNHCR's Role in Support of the Return and Reintegration of Displaced Populations: Policy Framework and Implementation Strategy. Thanks to Jeff Crisp for clarifying this point.

28 Ogata, S. (1997), Refugee Repatriation and Peacebuilding, Refugee Survey Quarterly Vol. 16, no 2, pp. 14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Chimni, B. S. (2002), Post-Conflict Peace-Building and the Return of Refugees: Concepts, Practices and Institutions, in Newman, E. (ed.), Refugees and Forced Displacement, Tokyo: United Nations University Press, pp. 197198Google Scholar.

30 Stokke et al., Myanmar.

31 In February 2018 the verified caseload receiving rations in the camps was 93,587. The population verified by UNHCR was 100,015. See monthly population updates at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

32 UNHCR provides THB 1,800 per person for transport costs and an additional THB 5,400 per adult and THB 3,600 per child. Sa Isue (2018), Thailand Transfers 93 Returning Refugees to Burma Government, Karen News, 9 May.

33 V. Tan (2017), From Camp to City, Myanmar Returnees Grapple with Yangon Life, UNHCR News, 10 May.

34 Assawin Pinitwong (2019), Karen Refugees Return to Myanmar, Bangkok Post, 1 July.

35 UNHCR Thailand (2019), Facilitated Voluntary Repatriation—Summary, 11 July.

36 K. Joliffe (2015), Refugee Decision-Making Processes, Community-Based Protection and Potential Voluntary Repatriation to Myanmar, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020]. Burma Partnership (2012), The Situation of Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border; V. Jack (2016), Communication of Information on the Thai-Burma Border, Forced Migration Review Vol. 52, pp. 96–98; Progressive Voice (2019), There is No One Who Does Not Miss Home: A Report on Protracted Displacement Due to Armed Conflicts in Burma/Myanmar; M. Rudolf and C. Schmitz-Pranghe (2018), Beyond Aid: The Continuous Struggle to Cope with Displacement in Myanmar and Thailand, Bonn: Bonn International Centre for Conversion.

37 This number is provided on UNHCR Thailand's webpage at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

38 Rudolf and Schmitz-Pranghe, Beyond Aid, p. 28.

39 The UK Department for International Development escalated its budget to support peacebuilding in Myanmar (£50.5 million from 2015–2020, with an escalating annual spend) while reducing support to refugees and displaced persons (£36.8 million pledged from 2012–2018, declining to an annual spend of £1 million in 2018). Details available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020). On Norway's investment in peacebuilding, see C. Johnson and M. Lidauer (2014), Testing Ceasefires, Building Trust: Myanmar Peace Support Initiative Operational Review, Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

40 Karen News (2019), First it was Funding Cuts to Food, Education, Healthcare and Social Work—Now 1,000 Administration Workers to Feel Donors’ Razor, 20 June; HART (2017), Update: Shan Refugee Camp Runs Out of Food:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

41 Interviews in Thailand on 2 May 2018. See also S. Oh and M. Walker (2019), Hanging in the Balance: Challenges in Relocating a Post-secondary School from a Thai Refugee Camp to a Ceasefire Area in Myanmar, Toronto: Tea Circle Oxford.

42 Nan Wai Phyo Zar (2018), UNHCR Says it Has Never Encouraged Refugees to Return Home from Thai Border, Karen News, 27 June.

43 KWO member, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 3 May 2018.

44 Participant in women's focus group, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 4 May 2018.

45 Section leader, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 2 May 2018.

46 Section security, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 4 May 2018.

47 Section leader, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 1 May 2018.

48 Member of Camp Committee, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 1 May 2018.

49 Camp resident, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 3 May 2018.

50 Member of Camp Committee, Mae La Oon refugee camp, Thailand, 4 May 2018.

51 Human Rights Council, Report of the Fact-Finding Mission, p. 6.

52 Zarni, Maung and Cowley, A. (2014), The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar's Rohingya, Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal Vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 681752Google Scholar.

53 Human Rights Council, Report of the Fact-Finding Commission, paras 83, 87, and 92.

54 Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State Between the Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 23 November 2017, Article 2, emphasis added.

55 Refugees International (2018), The Bangladesh-Myanmar Agreement for Rohingya Repatriation, 17 January: ‘it is baffling—and horrifying—that governments are discussing return of these victims to the very forces that perpetrated their oppression’; Minority Rights Group (2018), Rohingya Repatriation Must Be Voluntary and Take Place Only Once Underlying Issues are Addressed by Myanmar Government, 16 January; Physicians for Human Rights (2018), Rohingya Repatriation Agreement Fails to Address Accountability and Safety Concerns, 17 January; Human Rights Watch (2018), Burma-Bangladesh Return Plan Endangers Refugees, 17 January.

56 Statement by High Representative Federica Mogherini on the Signing of a Bilateral Repatriation Agreement, 23 November 2017, available at:, [accessed 15 January 2021].

57 Dhaka Tribune (2017), Rohingya Repatriation Deal: What We Know, 27 November.

58 J. Crisp (2018), We Must Not Repeat the Shameful History of Returning Rohingya Refugees, News Deeply, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020]; J. Crisp (2018), ‘Primitive People’: The Untold Story of UNHCR's Historical Engagement with Rohingya Refugees, ODI Magazine, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

59 Primitive People: The Untold Story of UNHCR's Engagement with Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, unpublished report by UNHCR PDES; copy on file with author of this article.

60 Ibid., p. 15.

61 Ibid., citing Cato Aall, Disastrous International Relief Failure: A Report on Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh from May to December 1978, Disasters Vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 429–434.

62 Primitive People, p. 22.

63 Ibid., p. 43.

64 Burma: Memorandum on Repatriation. Statement Issued by the Information Section of the UNHCR in 1993, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

65 R. Rae, Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of Canada (2018), Tell Them We're Human: What Canada and the World Can Do About the Rohingya Crisis, Ottawa: Government of Canada.

66 Crisp, ‘Primitive People’.

67 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2019), End of Mission Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, 25 January, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

68 Human Rights Council, Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar, para. 112.

69 Statement by the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar (2019), Dialogue Will Make Myanmar Stronger, 29 January.

70 United Nations Statement on the Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char, 2 December 2020, available at:, [accessed 15 January 2021].

71 The cessation statement was circulated to the refugee community and was not made available through UNHCR media communications. Much of the statement is reprinted in S. B. Pisharoty (2018), UNHCR to Cancel Refugee Status of Chins of Myanmar, The Wire, 30 June.

72 McConnachie, K. (2019), Securitization and Community-Based Protection among Chin Refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Social and Legal Studies Vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 158178CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 S. Chow (2018), Refugees No More, R.AGE Malaysia, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

74 Article 1(C)(5) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951).

75 UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion No. 69, Cessation of Status (1992) and UNHCR Guidelines on Cessation (2003) explain that a decision to declare cessation should be objective and verifiable, should be based on the general human rights situation, and draw on information from specialist bodies, such as UNHCR, foreign embassies, the media, and academics. The declaration and its implementation should be public and transparent, and include refugees, NGOs, and UNHCR.

76 UNHCR's Guidelines on Cessation stated that ‘partial cessation’ (i.e. applied to a subgroup from a country) is possible but that ‘changes in the country of origin affecting only part of the territory should not in principle, lead to cessation of refugee status’.

77 Elroi Yee (2019), An Unnecessary Cessation, The Star, 24 March.

78 UNHCR (2019), UNHCR Says Ethnic Chin Refugees May Require Continued International Protection as Security Situation Worsens in Myanmar, 14 March.

79 I. Kumar and N. Raja (2019), Reclaiming Refugee Status: The Arduous Journey of Chin Refugees in India, Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 12 April.

80 Crisp and Long, Safe and Voluntary Refugee Repatriation, notes 16 and 42.

81 Human Rights Council (2019), Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, A/HRC/40/68.

82 Chow, Refugees No More; Progressive Voice, There is No One Who Does Not Miss Home.

83 See Bradley, M., Milner, J. and Peruniak, B. (2019) Refugees’ Roles in Resolving Displacement and Building Peace, Washington, DC: Georgetown University PressGoogle Scholar.

84 There have been numerous publications and policy statements by refugee-led organizations, including a statement by the Karen Refugee Committee outlining 10 preconditions for repatriation, a set of sectoral policy recommendations for the peace process (drafted with extensive input from refugees, IDPs, and civil society) published by the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Centre (, and a 180-page research report published by 15 civil society groups: Progressive Voice, There is No One Who Does Not Miss Home.

85 For details of UNHCR's population of concern from Myanmar by year, see UNHCR's Refugee Population Statistics Database at:, [accessed 20 January 2021].

86 MacGinty, R. (2015), Where Is the Local? Critical Localism and Peacebuilding, Third World Quarterly Vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 840856CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Öjendal, J., Schierenbeck, I. and Hughes, C. (eds) (2017), The ‘Local Turn’ in Peacebuilding, Abingdon: RoutledgeGoogle Scholar; Firchow, P. (2018), Reclaiming Everyday Peace, Cambridge: Cambridge University PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar; MacGinty, R. and Firchow, P. (2016), Top-Down and Bottom-Up Narratives of Peace and Conflict, Politics Vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 308323CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Paris, R. (2010), Saving Liberal Peacebuilding, Review of International Studies Vol. 36, pp. 337365CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chandler, D. (2006), Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building, London: Pluto PressGoogle Scholar. MacGinty and Firchow found a consistent gap between top-down and bottom-up narratives of peace and a consistent pattern of elite narratives of peace and transition overriding local experiences of continued conflict and insecurity.

87 Richmond, O. and Pogodda, S. (2016), Post-Liberal Peace Transitions: Between Peace Formation and State Formation, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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89 Carr, Supporting the Transition; Pedersen, M. (2012), Rethinking International Assistance to Myanmar in a Time of Transition, in Cheesman, N., Skidmore, M. and Wilson, T. (eds), Myanmar's Transition: Openings, Obstacles and Opportunities, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, at pp. 271287Google Scholar (and other contributions to this volume).

90 A very small sample of this literature includes De Genova, N. (ed.) (2017), The Borders of ‘Europe’: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering, Durham: Duke University PressGoogle Scholar; Haddad, E. (2008), The Refugee in International Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar; Jones, R. (2016), Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, London: VersoGoogle Scholar.

91 See, for example, Crisp and Long, Safe and Voluntary Refugee Repatriation, note 26.

92 C. R. Abrar (1994), Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees, available at:, [accessed 30 October 2020].

93 Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State, Article 17, 23 November 2017.

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