Thailand: Worries over Myanmar refugee flood at crammed border camp
MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, Oct 1, 2007 (AFP) - In this refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border, huts are so tightly packed that chickens leap with ease between the thatched mud-and-leaf roofs.
The tiny homes can shelter up to three families of refugees who have fled fighting between Myanmar's army and ethnic rebel militias, and who face little hope of ever returning home or even leaving the crammed Mae La Camp.
Dirt roads teeming with ragged children are barely wide enough for the off-road trucks that ferry humanitarian aid through the settlement, which is home to nearly 50,000 people, mostly from Myanmar's Karen ethnic minority.
Thailand's Ministry of Interior, which runs the camps, has accepted few new refugees here for at least a year, but as Myanmar's junta cracks down on protests in Yangon, there are fears that a fresh wave of asylum-seekers could flood the border area.
"The people inside Burma, if they come inside the camp, we have to welcome them," Lin Leh Soe, who works with the Karen Women's Organisation, said, using Myanmar's former name.
Refugees from Myanmar began coming to Thailand in 1984 as the junta advanced into Karen state, and now there are about 155,000 refugees crowded in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented a catalogue of abuses by Myanmar's military against civilians in Karen state, including forced labour, murder and the destruction of crops.
"They burn down the rice and they burn down the fields," said Mahn Shah, a member of the Karen National Union, an armed group battling the junta.
"Civilians lose their food, their property, they can't stay any longer, so they come to the border."
Naw Palay Wak spent a month traversing mountains with her parents and brothers to reach Thailand after troops from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as Myanmar's junta is known, came to her village two years ago.
"When the SPDC military came to my village, if they saw women, they raped them, and they called the people in the village to be porters," she told AFP. "My mother was raped. We could not stay in my village."
The 20-year-old was in her first year studying law at Taungoo University when her family fled, but now her main task is taking care of her younger siblings.
"I did not want to throw my education away," she says. "I would like to improve my life, but I can't go to school."
Many of the social ills in Mae La such as alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse stem from the hopelessness that afflicts the refugees, said Sally Thompson, of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which provides aid to camp.
"They don't have a choice, they are not able to decide what they do. At the moment they are not allowed to work, so they leave school, and then what do they do? They've got no hope, no opportunity," she told AFP by phone.
Thompson estimates that about 500 to 600 asylum seekers arrive from Myanmar each month.
Prospects for the refugees to return home remain bleak, she said, and one solution would be for the Thai government to allow them to work legally in the kingdom, a scenario currently being hammered out.
Since 2005, about 16,250 refugees have also been resettled abroad, mostly in the United States, thus all but giving up hope of ever returning to Myanmar.
People working in the camps say it is difficult to predict if the crackdown in Yangon will send a new wave across the border, and are divided over the ability to house any new arrivals.
"If there was an influx, the Thai government would probably accommodate them," says Eldon Hager, the resettlement officer for the United Nation's refugee agency office in Mae Sot.
Others are not optimistic about the government taking so kindly to a flood of persecuted Myanmar nationals, especially when Mae La already has up to 6,000 unregistered residents who officially have no access to aid.
"That's been the policy of the MoI (Ministry of Interior) -- starve the new arrivals out," says one aid worker who asked not to be named.
Security at the camp has been tightened since the Myanmar junta unleashed bullets and tear gas last week, killing at least 13 on the streets of Yangon.
A small protest was rumoured to have broken out at the camp football field, while foreign missionaries are afraid to leave their schools inside the camp in case they will not be able to get back in through the military check-points.
And while many may be making treacherous journeys to try and reach Thailand, those who live in Mae La think about escaping.
After stoically describing her mother's rape and her flight from Myanmar, Naw Palay Wak finally breaks down in tears when speaking about her future.
She has applied for resettlement in the United States and Australia, but has heard nothing.
"I only want to get the education that I can't get now," she says.
cm/fz/bgs AFP 010114 GMT 10 07
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