The following is an edited version of a speech by Zoya Phan, Programme Director at Burma Campaign UK, at the launch of Refugee Week at the University of East Anglia on 3rd March 2023.
Refugees deserve compassion
Thank you so much for inviting me back to speak here again. It is a great honour for me to be back at the University of East Anglia.
Refugee Week can be an emotional time for me. It makes me think back on my experiences as a child and young woman.
When I was 14, the Burmese military attacked my village in Karen State, Burma. We all had to flee for our lives. We were lucky, we escaped, we walked through the jungle for weeks before we reached a refugee camp in Thailand. It was the first time I became a refugee. Before then, I had no idea what a refugee was and I had no understanding of the concept of being a refugee.
The second time I became a refugee was two years later, after we had moved back to Burma to try to rebuild our lives in a new place, but that was also attacked by the Burmese military. We had to run through the night back into Thailand. Back into the refugee camps. I thought in my heart, no, not again, I don’t want to be a refugee again. But I had no choice.
The third time I became a refugee was here in the UK, after coming to the UK to study. I became politically active against the Burmese military, and it was not safe for me to return to Thailand because of death threats, let alone Burma.
The theme of compassion for this refugee week is a good one. It focuses on the positive. At every stage of my journey as a refugee people with compassion have helped.
People from my own community, the ethnic Karen people of Burma, formed committees to help Karen refugees. They organised food, shelter and medical support. They made sure children had an education. International donors played a part, and international people came to help.
When I came to the UK, I was met with compassion from friends I made here at this university, from the university itself, which was my first home in the UK, and from Karen and Burmese refugees already in the UK.
Without this support, I cannot imagine my life. I would probably have died years ago.
But while focusing on the compassion that has been so important to us as refugees, we must also focus on the lack of compassion that many governments and institutions have shown to refugees, because this must be challenged and it must change.
When I was a refugee in Thailand, we were not given official refugee status. There was no pathway to work, integration, or making a life in Thailand, even though there was no hope of returning home to Burma. Instead we were made to construct barbed wire fences imprisoning ourselves, fences still there decades later. Thailand, like many countries, hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention.
And the truth is, when I claimed asylum here, the Home Office treated me with no compassion at all. Staff were rude and threatening, my application took years, leaving me stateless and in fear, unable to start a new life. The process was as traumatic as when I ran through the jungle at night with Burmese military mortar bombs shaking the ground as they attacked us.
I am always amazed and inspired by the compassion that so many people have to help others, I could not have survived without it.
But I am disappointed as well at how refugees are treated.
Cuts in aid budgets mean refugees abroad have rations cut, and children who have already been through so much will go hungry.
Governments and media spend more time publicly attacking those seeking asylum than they do terrorists and criminals.
And asylum seekers in the UK are still banned from working, despite the right to work making sense morally, economically, and having majority public support.
If the Nationality and Borders Bill was in place when I claimed asylum, I would have been turned down. There are no legal pathways for people from Burma to come to the UK for sanctuary.
But my hope for positive change is here. It means so much to me seeing many of you here. People with compassion. People who have no personal reason to give your time and effort to help refugees, but do so because you care.
We have to change public attitudes, and we have to change laws. And we will. Compassion will win.
My homeland is now a conflict zone. The Burmese military have been attacking us for decades. Every day, people have been attacked with airstrikes and artillery shelling. People in Burma are so desperate for help.
Refugees just want to go home, we want to go home, but we cannot go home. For many of us our homes have been shattered and our families have been destroyed. There is nothing for us to go back to. But we still want to go home, because we want to help rebuild our country. We want to work for the development of our community and help our next generation to grow.