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.
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.
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
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.