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Little succor for Burma's refugees

Burmese fleeing to camps in Thailand find they get little aid or work and no legal status.

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But after the Thai government assumed control of the camps two years ago, the registration process has ground to a halt. Nearly 20,000 live in the camps illegally, unregistered and without official food aid or shelter, according to Burmese camp officials

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The Thai government is concerned that large numbers of refugees will never return to Burma and may strain relations with the government there. "The Thai government might worry that some refugees will want to resettle in Thailand," says Susan Banki, a research fellow with Griffith University in Australia. She says at least 150,000 Burmese refugees live in Thailand, and the growing number of arrivals may be adding pressure on the government.

More refugees squeezing in

The problem is compounded by events in Burma, where the crackdown on the monk-led protests of September 2007, the destruction wrought by cyclone Nargis last May, and escalating fighting between the Burmese government and Karen rebels is unleashing a flood of refugees. The state's release of 9,000 prisoners Tuesday – seen as a political gesture ahead of the anniversary of the crackdown – may send more people across the border.

"New arrivals to the camp are our biggest problem," says Po Lay Tey. "The Thai government does not give them food, and they are forced to sneak out of the camp to find work."  

Hundreds of deportations

Thai paramilitary forces have deported dozens of these new arrivals and promise to deport all refugees who arrived after April, according to Human Rights Watch. Some refugees also accuse Thai forces of mistreatment. "Some Thai soldiers are good," Po Lay Tey says, "but some steal our money. Sometimes the soldiers treat us very badly." 

When actress Mia Farrow visited Mae Sot in July, a nearby town with a large illegal Burmese refugee population, police arrested and deported close to 1,000 refugees to prevent security disturbances, according to local witnesses. First Lady Laura Bush's visit in August to the Mae La camp prompted a similar crackdown, residents say. 

The situation is most precarious for the newest refugees, cyclone Nargis survivors, who left most of their belongings behind and have only ever earned a living as farmers. Close to 200 families made the trip from areas in southern Burma devastated by the storms.

"My house was destroyed, but the [Burmese] government gave us no help," refugee Ath U Po says. "Now I have no job.  I used to plant rice but our field was destroyed. We cannot plant anything here [at the camp], and we cannot leave the camp to find work." 

Camp residents raised funds to help support Ath U Po and others like her, but camp authorities say that charity from other refugees can only go so far.