WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of Burmese refugees flowed into the country between 2002 and 2011. However, this ethnic community is too small and new to get on the radar screens of many government and social agencies, and at this point lacks the economic and social capital necessary to thrive in the United States, according to a new report.
“Invisible Newcomers: Refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Bhutan in the United States,” highlights the issues immigrants from those two countries face when arriving in the U.S., the lack of resources they have at their disposal and what policies could be put in place to help them assimilate and succeed in America.
The report was released Wednesday morning by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and Association for Asian American Studies.
In 1951, the United Nations defined a refugee as anyone living outside of his native country because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Burma, a former British colony in Southeast Asia, has been in civil war since gaining independence in 1948, and is run by a military-backed civilian government.
The country was renamed Myanmar by the military coalition that took over the country after it severed ties with Britain, but many Burmese refuse to recognize the government and the name it gave their country.
Because of frequent violent conflicts between the army and insurgency groups, some 80,000 Burmese have flocked to the U.S. since 2004. These refugees make up 17 percent of all refugees coming into the country between 2002 and 2011, which makes them the largest single contingent in this time span.
Similarly, prominent religious minority groups in Bhutan have been targeted and persecuted since the 1950s, and peaceful rallies and demonstrations during the 1990s were sometimes met with violence, arrest and torture, according to the report.
“There’s so much more to learn, there’s so much more to understand about our community, and that’s what this is about today,” said scholarship fund president Neil Horikoshi at a Capitol Hill briefing on the report. “It’s the beginning of a dialogue about what is required in this community.”
The major issues holding back these refugees stem from their limited English proficiency, which hampers their ability to find and keep jobs, enroll in college and utilize resources to find stable footing in American life.
Consequently, 30 percent of Burmese refugees live in poverty, compared to 11 percent of other Asian Americans, and 39 percent of the Burmese newcomers have dropped out of high school. Even so, 23 percent of Burmese refugees have a bachelors’ degree, and another 8 percent have more advanced degrees.
Myra Dahgaypaw is a Burmese immigrant and board member of the Karen American Communities Foundation, which represents the prominent Karen Burmese ethnic group. She said she was concerned about the future for the youngest generation of Burmese immigrants, citing a lack of U.S. government awareness of their issues and little emphasis amongolder refugees on becoming an American citizen.
“A lot of times, the refugees come into our community without us knowing we have a new group of people,” said Dahgaypaw. “Let alone, our senators and representatives don’t even know they have the newcomers in their state. So somebody has to make [this] known to the people.”
While the problems Burmese and Bhutanese refugees face are not that different from those of earlier immigrant groups, the community’s newness, small size and lack of geographic concentration makes it harder for government and self-help organizations to reach it.
Thirty-five percent of the 106,168 Burmese refugees in the U.S. live in the South, while 34 percent live in the Western United States. The rest are concentrated in the Northeast (18 percent) and Midwest (13 percent). Even though the refugees are spread somewhat evenly throughout the country, concentrated Burmese neighborhoods like those in Utica, N.Y. and Fort Wayne, Ind., are few and far between, said Janelle Wong, an associate professor and director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“National origin, ethnic origin is not necessarily tied deeply to place, so place-based programs don’t necessarily work for this kind of community,” said Wong, who served on the study’s advisory committee. “You need to have maybe a more nationalized program — maybe centered in D.C. — with these kinds of advocacy organizations that develop a curriculum that can be easily distributed electronically.”