Refugees from Burma

Refugees from Burma

First of all, is it Burma or Myanmar? When the military junta took power in 1989, they changed the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which is a literary form of the same word. The pro-democracy movement does not recognize the country’s leadership, or the name change, as legitimate, and therefore calling the country “Burma” signals sympathy to the pro-democracy movement, and calling it “Myanmar” signals recognition of the current government as legitimate. This article from the BBC (2007) explains the controversy well.

That said, not everyone from Burma is Burmese! Burma has 8 major ethnic groups, each occupying one state within Burma. The Burmans are the majority group. The Karen are the largest ethnic minority. The other major groups are the Mon, Kayah, Rakhine, Shan, Chin, and Kachin, and there are around 145 other ethnic groups in the country. Many of the ethnic minority groups have historically been in conflict with the government, in times of democracy as well as military rule. Ethnic minorities such as the Karen have faced human rights abuses including forced labor and mass killings for several decades. The Mae La Refugee Camp (photos) in Thailand currently hosts around 50,000 people, most of them Karen. In contrast to the ethnically persecuted groups like the Karen, Burman refugees tend to be political refugees in the pro-democracy movement following Aung San Suu Kyi. The largest groups arriving in the USA are the Sgaw Karen, one of the Karen ethnic groups, followed by the Burmans. Other groups are also arriving in the USA in smaller numbers. Note that these groups have different languages and cultures, and should not be conflated into one group.

Roughly 3,500 refugees have been resettled to Utica, NY from Burma as of July 2015. Recently, they’ve been resettled at a rate of 200 – 300 people per year, about 2/3 of the total number of refugees resettled to Utica in recent years. This number includes everyone resettled from Burma/Thailand, but the majority of the refugees from Burma in the US are Sgaw Karen.

References gives a fantastic overview of refugees from Burma who come to the USA. It was created as a master’s thesis at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The numbers have changed, but the stories and situations are very relevant. I especially recommend checking out their “Resettlement in Three Maps”. (2008).

For a general overview with lots of pictures and practical advice for professionals working with refugees from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA. (2010).

The “Refugees from Burma” PDF from The Center for Applied Linguistics, housed on the Cultural Orientation Resource Center page gives an in-depth overview of the various ethnic groups of Burma, as well as their history, culture, religion, language, education, and more. (2007).

An online resource focused on Sgaw Karen language is The site is also dedicated to sharing Sgaw Karen culture and advocating for education and providing educational materials.

Challenges in the USA:

For challenges in education, this report from Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund. Combined with information about Refugees from Bhutan. (2014).

For healthcare challenges when working with populations from Burma, see this presentation prepared by Great Brook Valley Health Center in Worcester, MA (also linked above). (2010).

More considerations for healthcare providers from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center. (2012).

Prepared for a presentation to Bridges to Academic Success, a collaborative project of RISLUS and CASE at the CUNY Graduate Center.