New Spaces, New Opportunities: Thai-Burma Border

ACU's involvement with the estimated 140,000 refugees on the Thai-Burma border began in 2003. Refugees from Burma, many of them Karens fleeing extreme repression, had no access to tertiary education in the camps set up to handle what UNHCR calls "protracted refugee situations" where refugees are in camps for longer than five years.

Open to students of all religions and ethnicities, ACU and its partners have concentrated since 2009 on delivering a Diploma in Liberal Studies with units relevant to the needs of Burmese refugees and migrants. Most students come from Mae La, Umpiem and Mae Ra Moo camps. As one student says,

"The camp is like a 'prison without bars'. I have had many difficulties chasing me along in my life. When I was in my homeland, ever since I was a child, I had to flee many times to the forest for survival. When I arrived in the refugee camp, I was able to finish my high school and now I have an opportunity to study through Australian Catholic University."

Graduates who remain in camps are engaged in essential social services such as managing a camp orphanage, training young people in leadership and management, working with organizations documenting human rights abuses in Burma, teaching in camp schools, and working for UNHCR. Three students who gained entry to Australia and the USA to study have entered universities and gained scholarships, and 2010 and 2012 graduates have gained places at universities in Australia, Germany, the Czech Republic and Thailand. Read More >>

Using on-line and face-to-face tutoring and distance learning materials, ACU and its partners, Fairfield University (USA) and York University (Canada) offer units as part of the Diploma in Liberal Studies. Students travel from camps to a nearby facility providing on-line access and accommodation near Mae Sot.

The first cohort in the Diploma in Liberal Studies course graduated in 2010. The second cohort graduate in 2012. The newest cohort of forty-nine students, who began the program in September 2012, are studying English Language Communication Skills, Introduction to International Human Rights Law and Practice, Fundamentals of Management, Photography, and Introduction to International Development Studies (ACU), Leadership Theory, Psychology (Fairfield) and Global Environment Change (York). In their evaluations of previous courses, 100% of the 2012 graduates enjoyed learning, and the great majority were satisfied with course content, organization and delivery. Resident tutors were essential: "Without tutors I would have just collapsed!" writes one student.

Graduates who remain in camps are engaged in essential social services such as managing a camp orphanage, training young people in leadership and management, working with organizations documenting human rights abuses in Burma, teaching in camp schools, and working for UNHCR. Three students who gained entry to Australia and the USA to study have entered universities and gained scholarships, and 2010 and 2012 graduates have gained places at universities in Australia, Germany, the Czech Republic and Thailand.

Clearly all graduates embody one of ACU's graduate attributes: they recognize "their responsibility to the common good." On 9 July 2012, the Karen Human Rights Group's Field Director, Saw Albert, an ACU graduate, addressed the UN Security Council in a presentation framed by the Action Plan signed on June 27 by the Government of Myanmar (Burma) to end the use and recruitment of child soldiers by Tatmadaw, the Burmese military.

In 2008 the project received the "Best Collaborative International Project" award of the Business and Higher Education Round Table and in 2010 the ACU Vice-Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Community Engagement.

The comments of a student are testimony to the sense of self-worth and hope that the program brings:

"We are lucky to have this opportunity of learning… It is a wonderful chance for refugees… Even though we are migrants, even though we are illegal persons. The world is so large but in reality there is no space or place for us to stay or to live at the moment… Thank you from my family and my people."

As the government of Myanmar cautiously begins to open up to the outside world and eases restrictions on its minorities, there may soon be an opportunity for graduates to work in their own country and with their own people for the advancement of all its citizens. At some stage in the future there may also be opportunities for ACU students to work with the people of the border camps as part of their engagement with communities. In this way, they would contribute to their own learning and to the mission of ACU to be "guided by a fundamental concern for justice and equity, and for the dignity of all human beings."

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