10/01/2012 – The winter sun rises over the mountains marking the Thai-Burmese border, slowly dissipating the mist which has settled overnight. My colleagues and I have been travelling since dawn heading south from the western border town of Mae Sot to the Nu Po refugee camp, home to some 18,000 refugees mostly ethnic Karen fleeing the conflict and social deprivation in Burma/Myanmar.
As the vehicle winds its way over the mountains, I reflect on the situation of the refugees, one that is marked by contradictions: Their official status is that of “illegal migrants”, not “refugees” as the Thai government has not signed the 1956 UN Convention on the Treatment of Refugees. Therefore they do not live in “refugee camps” but in “temporary camps” although the nine camps on the border have existed for some 20 years.
As we approach the camp Nu Po, the effect of this “temporary” status becomes apparent: The homes of the “refugees” are constructed out of wood and bamboo. The Thai authorities do not allow the use of modern material such as corrugated iron sheets or bricks or concrete as they would symbolize a certain “permanence” concerning their situation. Also the refugees are officially not allowed to leave the camps making them completely dependent on the aid provided by international NGOs, funded by large donors such as ECHO. In fact the European Commission has been funding humanitarian aid such as food and health care in the camps for nearly twenty years, a commitment which will continue in 2012.
As one walks through the dusty streets of the camps between the wooden houses tightly rowed one next to the other, one becomes aware of the large number of children. A whole new generation is growing up knowing nothing but life in the camps. More than 70,000 refugees have taken the opportunity to re-settle in third countries, mostly in the USA. But still the number of refugees in the nine camps remains steady at 148,000, as more flee the insecurity and the tough social and economic situation in Burma/Myanmar’s border region.
Life in the camps revolves around the schooling of the children and the monthly distribution of food rations. The Thai Burmese Border Consortium (TBBC), an alliance of NGOs, constantly verifies the number of recipients and monitors food distributions. Other NGOs provide basic health care, education, and water and sanitation, almost acting as the local municipality of a small town. And this is what these camps have naturally evolved into after more than 20 years; real settled communities. It is with the realization of this situation that ECHO together with other donors and the NGO community has been promoting a strategy for more durable solutions for the refugees.
The Thai government has not yet signed up to the draft strategy but there have been important developments, quietly implemented but with important effects on the lives of many refugees. Some of the camps have now been connected to the national electricity grid. Many refugees also now have access to the Thai mobile phone network allowing them to access the internet and stay in contact with friends and relatives, even those living abroad. Vocational training is now being offered inside the camps on a limited basis. This training includes projects in small-scale agriculture supported by ECHO. In Nu Po, the Dutch NGO, ZOA, has been able to access land next to the refugee camp which has allowed 60 families to grow their own vegetables. Teams of men and women carefully tend the small plots with tools provided through the project. Notably the project also includes local Thai famers who have participated in the training programs and help in the marketing of the produces. The refugees, mostly women, have been able to supplement their food rations and have an income allowing them to purchase small necessities such as clothing and toiletries.
Much discussion amongst the refugees also center around the effects that recent political reforms in Burma/Myanmar might have on their lives. Camp leaders fear that the Thai authorities may force them to return in the coming years, as relations between Thailand and Burma/Myanmar steadily improve. Many say they would return home voluntarily “if the conditions are right”. So it is hoped that the political reforms (on both sides of the former warring parties) will materialize in actual peace and stability on the ground. Some refugees have been in the camps so long they only have distant memories, while the young have known nothing else but life in the camps. So their hope is that this new year will turn the page introducing reconciliation and return, allowing them to restart their lives afresh in dignity and self-reliance.