MAE SOT/MAE LA – Oblivious to the late afternoon downpour, six children chase around near the roadside fence at Mae La camp, the biggest of nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma frontier.
“Please, no photos of the people”, implores a man standing nearby, sheltering against the wall of one the thousands of timber huts running along the roadside. Three of the children are his, though he refuses to give his name, saying only that he crossed to Thailand from Burma’s Karen State “more than one year ago” and has been confined to the camp since.
Acting on the orders of Tak Provincial Governor Samart Loifah, Thai officials started a headcount in Mae La and in Umpiem Mai and Nu Pu, the two other camps in Tak province. The census is ongoing, with roughly 40% of the estimated total 140,000+ Burmese refugee population in Thailand unregistered.
The Thai government stopped screening and registering new arrivals in 2005, meaning that there are around 60,000 unregistered refugees from Burma currently inside Thailand, according to Sally Thompson of the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a grouping of 12 NGOs that assists the Burmese refugees in the border camps
In total Thailand hosts just over 96,000 registered refugees, according to figures released by the United Nations refugee commission (UNHCR) in its 2010 Global Trends Report, which was published today to mark World Refugee Day. Worldwide, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria have the largest refugee populations at 1.9 million, 1.1 million, and 1 million respectively, numbers swollen due to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Overall, the 2010 Global Trends report says that “43.7 million people are now displaced worldwide – roughly equalling the entire populations of Colombia or South Korea, or of Scandinavia and Sri Lanka combined”. Of this total of displaced, 15.4 million are listed as refugees, 27.5 million people displaced internally by conflict, and nearly 850,000 are asylum-seekers, according to the new report.
Thailand has long been a refuge for Burmese affected by oppression and warfare at home, with the 140,000+ actual numbers of refugees, a number which includes unregistered refugees, joined by around 3 million Burmese economic migrants working in Thailand. In 2010, a total of 11,400 refugees in Thailand were resettled to third countries, mostly in the West, making Thailand the second-highest refugee resettlement staging point after Nepal. Of that total, 10,825 were from Burma, according UNCHR Asia spokesperson Kitty McKinsey.
Burma is listed as the world’s fifth-biggest source country for refugees, ranking close to Colombia and Sudan. As well as Burmese refugees in Thailand, the numbers, Burma’s total refugee output, given by UNHCR at 415700, “includes an estimated 200,000 un- registered people in Bangladesh”, mostly Muslim Rohingya from Arakan State in Burma’s west.
With the Tak camp census ongoing, comments from Governor Samart and from other senior Thai officials in recent months about sending refugees back to Burma have prompted consternation in the camps.
However, calls for the Burmese refugees to be repatriated are premature, according to people familiar with the situation on the ground in ethnic minority regions close to the Thailand border. “There is conflict between the SPDC (the name for the Burmese military dictatorship prior to the establishment of a new nominally-civilian Government earlier in 2011) and ethnic armed groups in many regions”, says Mahn Mahn, head of the Backpack Health Workers Team, which deploys almost 2,000 medics and associated personnel inside conflict-affected regions of Burma, places where existing health facilities are thin on the ground, or non-existent.
The latest bout of fighting in the northerly Kachin State has forced around 10,000 people from their homes close to the Burma-China border, while in parts of Karen State, source of most of the refugees in adjacent Tak Province in Thailand, “the army has a shoot-on-sight policy, which affects civilians as well as militia fighters” according to Mahn Mahn.
Since the November 2010, when elections in Burma were accompanied by fighting in Karen State between the army and various Karen factions, over 30000 people have been displaced, according to Sally Thompson.
“Around 6000 of these are in temporary sites around the border”, she says, referring to new locations outside of the nine main camps.
Extensive de-mining in Karen State and in Burma’s other ethnic regions will be necessary before refugees could return to their homeland, says Saw Maw Kel, a former Karen rebel who lost part of his left leg in 1986 after standing on a landmine. He says the Karen rebels themselves plant landmines are used close to army locations, but that rebels tell civilians where the mines are located, in contrast to the army’s mines, which are laid indiscriminately, affecting villages and making it dangerous to farm or work in forests.
Saw Maw Kel now runs the prosthetics dept at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, close to the Thailand-Burma border. “I have over two hundred referrals a year here”, he says, pointing to a whiteboard on the clinic wall, which shows the the majority of the caseload to be landmine victims from inside Burma.
Not all of the cases he deals with are Karen or from the country’s other ethnic minorities. Than Tin, an ethnic Burman from Pegu Division, is one of the latest landmine casualties to visit Mae Tao. He lost half his right leg last January. “I was lucky I had some friends with me”, he recounts. “One of them ties up my leg with a longyi and they all carried me to Myawaddy Hospital”. The improvised tourniquet likely saved Than Tin’s life, allowing him be carried across the border to Mae Sot for treatment.
Pointing down to his bandaged leg-stump, he says “it is not safe in many places across the border. I went out with colleagues for a day’s work, and have not been able to work since. I nearly died”, he concludes.