SDG 16b: Peace | The Agenda 2030 and Tourism
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    || The 2030 Agenda and Tourism > SDG 16b: Peace
    Building Peace Through Tourism For Those Who Cannot Travel

    SDG 16b - PEACE

    By Maria Youngsin Lim | Imagine Peace

    Progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 is threatened by rising levels of conflict, war and instability. According to the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023, SDG 16 on peace should be seen as an enabler for other SDGs. Across all SDGs, progress relies on peaceful and inclusive societies with access to justice for all and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.

    Crossing borders and travelling the world is possible mainly for those with a "good” passport, a "good” nationality, and who can afford it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, border controls have become sharper, filtering out those who cannot travel. The purpose of these stronger borders is not just to control the movement of travellers. While the World Tourism Organization enthusiastically proclaims 'tourism for all', an increasing number of people are risking their lives crossing borders to escape from war, conflict, poverty and disasters.

    The UNHCR Global Trends Report 2022 stated that there are 108 million people displaced globally by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses. 35.3 million are refugees. Refugee numbers had been increasing every year prior to the pandemic. However, the recognition rate decreased. The freedom to move, to escape war and find peace, is most urgent for people who are suddenly displaced due to wars and conflicts. But in many cases, the world denies the right to travel and freedom of movement to those who have become refugees because they do not qualify as “nationals”. People crossing borders to escape war and violence are too easily considered "dangerous", coming from a "bad” country. In an era of unending war, conflict and climate-related disasters, the values of SDG 16 on peace and inclusion become even more important.

    Between 'nationals' and 'refugees' in Thailand

    On the Thai-Myanmar border, the long-running issue of refugees came to the fore in February 2021 when the Myanmar military took power and declared a “coup’d’etat” for the whole country. Offensives were launched against its citizens including the Karenni people in Kayah State, forcibly displacing people to Myanmar’s bordering countries to seek protection. It is estimated that more than 100,000 have been displaced and have become refugees in Thailand since 2021. However, the exact number is unknown. This population is not officially recognized as 'refugees' by the host country, but as ‘displaced persons’. Those who are lucky to arrive alive at the border crossing are only allowed access to temporary safe zones. Once in the temporary shelters, they are not permitted to leave and are stuck within the confines of the vicinity. They are not allowed to travel to any other part of Thailand. If caught outside of the temporary safe zones, they can be subjected to penalty for violating the regulations.

    Exploitation of undocumented refugees from Myanmar, who are paid only about one third to half the wages of Thai workers, is widespread in the many farms and factories along the border. And the unfair treatment that they constantly experience remains unheeded. Meanwhile, more people are fleeing war and violence and get stuck at the border between Thailand and Myanmar.

    Weaving hope with refugee women

    In the 1990s, WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment), a non-profit foundation, began to support the education, health, and economic empowerment of refugee women. Right from the beginning, WEAVE knew that that without refugee women’s economic independence, safety and health are unattainable goals. In the empty hands of the Karen and Karenni refugee women, who had no freedom, no resources, and no support for economic activity, WEAVE found the intangible heritage and life skills of weaving. The amount of money that could be earned from a single handmade scarf, woven in three days while looking after a child, was not insignificant. It was the equivalent of a day's wage for a refugee labourer outside the camp.

    Some women in the camps were young mothers in their late teens and early twenties who had already experienced multiple burdens from childbirth, divorce, or rape. WEAVE’s Fairtrade project that started in 2012 provided a safe and enabling space for refugee women to have access to productive activities and a gainful and dignified income while healing themselves through weaving and in creating beautiful handmade products. WEAVE strongly believe that economic independence and provision of social capital contributes to women’s capacity to build their dignity and lead independent lives. More than money, weaving has given them hope, a new rhythm of life and sense of identity.

    WEAVE, a registered enterprise in Thailand, contributes the proceeds of its profits to public causes, e.g. for the refugee girls' school, for childcare support, nursery school buildings, or empowering women and training them as peace mediators. According to Mitos Urgel, President of WEAVE, his organization helps refugee women become agents in solving the problems in their communities rather than merely being receivers of assistance.

    A peace journey that connects inside and outside borders

    In 2022, WEAVE launched the “Dignity Pouches for Refugee Women” campaign with Imagine Peace South Korea to help the new wave of refugees and vulnerable women that arrived in the temporary shelters. WEAVE women refugee artisans decided to sew dignity pouches to hold essential items that vulnerable girls and women need, including sanitary napkins, towels, soap, underwear, whistles for self-defence, lanterns, and sarongs (traditional skirts). South Korean peace travellers who were connected through fair trade and fair travel took responsibility for the items in the pouches. Members of the Karenni National Women's Organization (KNWO) and students from the Women's Study Programme delivered the pouches to over 1,000 women.

    WEAVE’s Women's Study Programme, a ten-month residential school programme for refugee girls aged 17-24, uses a curriculum that teaches women's rights, peace, innovation, and social values. Students learn to identify and solve problems collectively. In one workshop during a peace trip, the girls were asked what they needed most in the refugee camp, and the girls unanimously replied, "a space to experience peace." There is an overwhelming lack of peaceful spaces in the prevailing harsh living conditions. The president of WEAVE, Mitos Urgel, said: “Refuges are valuable and women can only be stronger if we cultivate peace building initiatives to prepare young refugee women to become peace makers in their families and communities.”

    The Peace Library Project

    The travellers listened to those voices and began to take steps of solidarity. Although their trip ended, their efforts to create space for peace did not stop. In July 2022, WEAVE's artisan women and the girl students designed a peace library to be built together: Not just for books, but to create a safe space to draw and listen to music, to learn and teach peace. In the refugee camps, women's peace workshops are being conducted to discuss and devise ways to create a space and culture of peace. The travellers started a campaign project to support the peace library. The memories built through travelling have transformed the spirit of connection into the power of solidarity.

    In July 2023, a few months after funding for the Peace Library was sent, we received photos: The ground was cleared, the pillars were put in place, and the roof was put on. The people doing the work were not men, not engineers, but women: artisan weavers and refugee girls attending the girls' school. As they hand-picked the soil, erected bamboo poles and walls, and set-up the roof, a peace library was built in a refugee camp in the middle of the jungle. One girl's idea of having a place to drink water and wash hands on one side of the library for those who walked to it in the heat of the day on dirt paths was being implemented. Without the support of a major foundation or the handiwork of experts, the Peace Library is just a small, ramshackle building in the middle of a refugee camp. But peace thrives there thanks to the power of the memories of peace and the relationships that enabled its creation.

    In this way, cross-border travel and encounters create cracks in the walls and carry the narratives of people trapped in places outward through the memories of the travellers. Through the time spent in the borderlands, unspoken words become stories and expand into social memory. Through reflection and awareness of what builds and maintains boundaries, and steps across boundaries, barriers are broken down one step at a time.