Little succor for Burma's refugees
Burmese fleeing to camps in Thailand find they get little aid or work and no legal status.
Mae La, Thailand
Myo Zaw thought freedom would begin the day he left Burma (Myanmar). Government authorities there had made it impossible for him to get a job and tracked his every movement after some of his relatives joined political resistance groups. Eventually Myo Zaw paid truckers to smuggle him out of Burma and to a hidden city, deep in the jungles of Thailand.Skip to next paragraph
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That city, a sprawling refugee camp carved into the base of a mountain range about 30 miles from the border, forms part of an archipelago of camps that house political dissidents, ethnic minorities, homeless, jobless, and others who have fled.
But instead of bringing Burmese closer to liberty, Myo Zaw and others like him say Thailand's Burmese refugee camps are little more than open-air prisons, where Thai police tightly control movements and inhabitants face a growing threat of deportation.
"If we leave the camp to work or buy grain and the Thai Army catches us, we will be deported immediately," says Myo Zaw. While Thai authorities generally do not enter the camps, refugees are prohibited from leaving them for any reason.
According to camp officials, Thai authorities deported hundreds of refugees this summer who have ventured outside the camps for work or food. "Many have been sent back to Burma," to an uncertain fate, says Po Lay Tey, who like other camp administrators is a refugee elected by the camp dwellers.
"The Thai government has ignored its obligations to protect refugees fleeing the persecution and violence in Burma," Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said in a July statement. The Thai government declined to comment for this story.
Teak huts and a dirt path
Mae La, the largest camp, is a sprawling jungle city with more than 40,000 residents, according to camp directors. The camp boasts 29 schools, a general hospital, and a maternity hospital, all kept afloat by international aid dollars. A dirt path runs the length of the camp, flanked by teak huts with thatched roofs hoisted on stilts to accommodate flooding. Vendors hawk Burmese sweets and curries, as children scamper across a muddied stream.
There is little work inside the camp, and residents are prohibited from seeking work outside. Most spend their time dawdling porch-side as some of the younger ones strum guitars and hum American pop tunes.
Refugees – most of them from the Karen ethnic group, Burma's second largest – established Mae La in 1984 under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since then thousands of Karens and other Burmese have fled to the jungle camps to escape persecution from Burma's military government. UNHCR would register the refugees, supply basic food rations, and begin the process of resettling the new arrivals in countries around the world.