A photo released by the Royal Thai Army on March 30, 2021, shows an injured Myanmar refugee being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap, after crossing the Salween River while fleeing from air strikes in Karen state after the February military coup. Photo: AFP / Handout / Royal Thai Army

Sunday, June 20, marked the United Nations’ World Refugee Day, a time to focus on refugees worldwide, applaud their courage, and highlight their contributions. This year’s theme, “Heal, Learn, Shine,” recognizes the challenges of Covid-19, the need to uphold the right to education, and how refugees persevere despite the challenges they face.

According to the UN, there are more than 1.1 million refugees from my home country of Myanmar, making it one of the top five source countries of refugees worldwide. While many were able to celebrate World Refugee Day, those forced to flee Myanmar continue to witness mass atrocities. 

As the number of people fleeing the Myanmar military’s violence has only increased since the coup, seeking refuge in Thailand has proved increasingly difficult for ethnic-minority refugees as Thai officials fear the spread of Covid-19 and strictly police their borders.

Estimates are that in March and April, close to 3,000 Karen internally displaced persons (IDPs) crossed the Salween River to seek refuge in Thailand, only to be held by Thai officials until conditions were deemed secure enough to turn them away.

Similarly, more than 100,000 Karenni civilians escaping conflict in their home state were met with force at the Thai border, where officials attempted to push back thousands. 

Safety and security for refugees are rare, even when they are accepted by host countries. Refugees are uniquely affected by a number of factors, and are being disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.

Often crammed into tight living situations with inadequate hygiene facilities, the ability to escape Covid-19’s grip is almost impossible for Myanmar’s refugees. With more than a million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, there have been estimates of more than 1,300 cases of Covid-19 in the camps. Vaccine supplies are also far from refugees’ reach – as of June 1, no Covid-19 vaccines had been distributed in Cox’s Bazar. 

Education remains unavailable to refugees from Myanmar and across the diaspora in Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia. While some children are able to attend small, community-run schools, the general lack of educational opportunities forces entire generations from Myanmar to face their future unprepared.

A May study found that 68% of Rohingya families have at least one child aged five to 17 who has been offered no opportunities to gain an education. 

Despite impossible conditions and a consistent lack of international support, there are numerous examples of how refugees from Myanmar impact communities around the world.

The Chin Human Rights Organization has empowered thousands of Chin refugees in India and Malaysia to help them reach their full potential. With help from the Rohingya Women Development Network, Rohingya women in Malaysia are taught about their rights and the key roles they play in society.

Internally displaced Karenni and their refugee diaspora are supported by the collective work of the Karenni Civil Society Network, a Karenni-led effort that also speaks out against the human-rights abuses experienced by ethnic minorities across Myanmar.

While these efforts are worthy of celebration and highlight what refugees contribute to our communities, this impact would be amplified to the greatest extent if these individuals could bring their talent home to Myanmar for the benefit of all. 

It is difficult for civilians in Myanmar to heal when the army continues to brutalize its own people. Despite their suffering, refugees and IDPs are learning to empower themselves. However, they cannot do this alone. If the situation in Myanmar does not improve, the reported 175,000 internally displaced men, women, and children – a figure that is doubtlessly a conservative estimate – will likely become refugees. 

The Myanmar military’s impunity weighs heavily on the minds of refugees in Southeast Asia and IDPs in Myanmar who look to their home country and wonder if their chance to return safely is slipping away. Refugees in camps and those resettled abroad are calling for the world to act, but is anyone listening?

While everyone has the right to protection and freedom from the risk of death and torture, now more than ever, we need a world that will sustainably uphold the rights of all. The international community should take swift action to pressure the Myanmar military to allow unconditional humanitarian access to internally displaced people.

Cross-border aid is also essential and beyond crucial to the survival of the hundreds of thousands living in makeshift facilities and refugee camps.

Ending the illegal junta in Myanmar is the first step to securing human-rights-based livelihoods for refugees and the millions of civilians who have long deserved peace and democratic rule. Only then can we collectively begin a new and more equitable process to heal, learn, and shine. 

Myra Dahgaypaw

Myra Dahgaypaw, a former internally displaced person and a Karen refugee from eastern Myanmar, is managing director of the US Campaign for Burma.