The bustling Thai border town of Mae Sot is situated in the lush green jungle precariously shared with Burma and it is where on Saturday, the 23rd of November, ACU's Executive Dean, Professor Gail Crossley, led the graduation ceremony for thirty-seven ACU Thai-Burma Program students. Mae Sot was host to the joyful event of thirty-six Burmese refugee and migrant students graduating with a Diploma of Liberal Studies with one receiving a Certificate. The occasion that included lunch at a large Thai Catholic School was extraordinary indeed as the tertiary qualification awarded by ACU these hard working Burmese earned is from an internationally accredited institution and is a key to a very bright future.
Since the 1980s, there has been a flood of Burmese refugees fleeing the brutal military junta of Burma. Many fled poverty by illegally migrating across to Thailand to find jobs while others found solace in the refugee camps located in the border towns of Thailand. Burmese migrants were and are being used as cheap labour and are often caught up in human and sex trafficking rings operating between the two countries. The refugees in the camps are forever in a state of uncertainty, languishing in a no-man's land with little protection for their rights. In both cases, university education is a luxury. There are agencies and the UNHCR that assist in delivering education to Burmese children in Thailand up to year nine. There are even fewer that go on to offer "post-ten" schooling. However, tertiary education was non-existent, never mind any hope of a student being qualified by a globally recognised institution.
Seeing this hole in the refugee and migrant education system, the Australian Catholic University began a program in 2004 to provide tertiary education for primarily the largest displaced refugee group – the Karen. The past nine years has seen the ACU Thai-Burma Program evolve into providing a well-rounded gateway into further tertiary education and/or into critical positions within community-based organisations (CBOs) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The program has now broadened its intake for each cohort to include many faiths, especially Christian, Buddhist and Muslim, and ethnicities - from the Kachin in the north, to the Arakanese in the west and the Karen, Mon and Burman in the centre and east. The program has graduated 122 students by giving the opportunity for those on the margins to access tertiary education; both refugees and migrants have benefited from earning a Diploma in Liberal Studies. ACU has also begun a pilot program for urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand.
For a select few of these refugees and migrants, tertiary education is now a reality. ACU Thai-Burma Program Coordinator, Duncan MacLaren noted, "Some of the students have already had interviews for universities in Hong Kong to study for a degree. Others hope to work for NGOs or to teach back in Burma where properly trained teachers with critical thinking skills are in short supply." Tuesday, the 25th and Wednesday, the 27th of November saw the graduations of ACU Thai-Burma Program cohorts in Bangkok and Ranong, respectively.