Mae Sot’s Refugee Camps
On the western border of Thailand with Burma (Myanmar) lies the troubled district of Mae Sot, in Tak Province. This small district sits on a high plateau and is well-known as the biggest trade and access point between the two countries. There is tremendous movement of people, legal goods, and black market trade (gems, hardwood, drugs). There are roughly 150,000 legal migrant workers working in the town and district of Mae Sot, and it’s estimated that there are as many as 100,000 more illegal migrants at any one time.
Then there are the refugees. There are 9 refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, between Mae Hong Son to the north and Kanchanaburi to the south, with the largest of these in Mae Sot. Nearly 100,000 registered refugees live in these camps, with another estimated 50,000 living there who have not attained official refugee status. The largest of the camps, Mae La, houses nearly 40,000 people.
Why Are There Burmese Refugees Along the Thai-Burmese Border?
Here’s an extremely brief modern history of Burma. The country was colonized and consolidated by the British Empire in the late 1800s and only gained independence from Britain in 1947. Since the country was a consolidation of ethnic states, there was a drive for independence by many different groups, each looking to become a nation-state. The country slipped into military rule and many ethnic groups, most notably the Karen National Union, declared a war of independence against the great Burmese government.
Fast forward to 1988, when centralist economic policies and dictatorship have destroyed the economy of the country. A swelling democratic movement, led by students and monks, leads a revolt against the government. Far from successful, a brutal crackdown occurs and the government is re-formed as the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) which still controls the country today. The SLORC’s offenses force students to flee to the jungle, to Thailand as refugees, or to join the KNU as resistance fighters. In the years following, tens of thousands of civilians (largely Karen, but also Muslim and Hindu Burmese, as well as sympathizers) are forced to flee military reprisals.
Refugees recount stories of burned out villages, forced labour for the Burmese army, and the dangers of disease and landmines in the jungle.
Life in the Refugee Camps
The camps started filling up, even before the 1988 revolution, so by now some residents have lived in them for up to 25 years. Though Thailand hosts the refugees, controls their movement, and provides them with security, the large burden of organization falls to volunteer refugee committees and resources are largely provided by NGOs and UN agencies. Refugees live on a food allowance, one that has been strained lately by rising global food prices, especially the price of rice which has doubled in the past 5 years. There is little land available for agriculture, though many residents will grow vegetables in small gardens and raise pigs and chickens to supplement their diets.
Education is organized by the communities themselves and supplemented by NGO workers who provide basic programs and vocational training. Many of the refugees have friends and relatives who live outside the camps on both sides of the border and who may visit occasionally and bring material support. Despite the Thai military’s best efforts to keep the refugees in place, many are able to slip in and out of the camps to work illegally in order to build their incomes, or sometimes just to escape the boredom of the camps.
Though traditional activities like weaving, building, and small-scale agriculture continue within the camps, the vast majority of refugees are unemployed. But boredom is not the biggest worry for life in the camps. Crowding and inadequate hygiene and sanitation lead to frequent disease outbreaks, especially cholera. In the early 1990s, and infrequently since then, the Burmese military has launched attacks against the camps themselves, ostensibly tracking resistance fighters into these territories. Shelling on the border and skirmishes are still common, and so is violence perpetrated by drug dealing gangs.
And finally, in spring of 2011 Thai officials announced plans to close most of the camps and repatriate the residents back to Burma, back to places they fled for fear of their lives. Though this action has not been taken, the spectre hangs like a dark cloud over the displaced populations.
On the other hand, there are positives building. NGOs provide the residents with immunizations and health care better than they would often receive in their homes in Burma. Education and vocational programs allow people to train up with language and career skills, and many are applying to take shelter as free migrants to 3rd countries. The UN is pushing for the Thai government to recognize the rights of the residents and allow them to slowly be incorporated into Thai society.
Visiting the Camps
It’s easy enough to travel to Mae Sot, up a twisty road from Tak city, but getting to the camps is another story. You can drive by the Mae La camp on the road between Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son (route 105) and witness the packed settlements of jumbles of wood and bamboo cabins with leaf thatch roofs. However, if you’d like to get into the camps especially to work as an aid worker or volunteer, your best chance is to work through any of the NGOs that recruit professional workers and untrained volunteers. Opportunities include jobs in English teaching, medicine, community management and sanitation, social services and counselling, and many other areas. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium website provides information about the specific NGOs working in each of the camps, and the services they provide: <http://www.tbbc.org/camps/mst.htm#tbbc>
The Outlook for Burmese Refugees
Refugees are currently waiting to see what Thailand’s government will do next. There has been talk of sending them back to Burma and, on the other hand, of resettling them as official migrants into Thailand, with rights to pursue employment and greater freedom of movement. The government in Myanmar continues to be led by the military, and with support from a powerful China, seems unlikely to change soon. So the refugees wait – many have been waiting their whole lives.
This post is also available in: French