Refugee voices: Burmese in Tham Hin camp
Suffering the results of old injuries, Kohatu has limited use of his right arm and difficulty walking. His wife died in Burma, and he is now living with his children in a house vacated by his sister who was recently resettled in the United States.
Kohatu told Refugees International that he walked four days from his village in Burma to Tham Hin camp. He escaped without food and slept in the jungle without shelter, constantly fearing arrest and detention by the Burmese police.
Processing for newly entering refugees has been all but been halted by the Thai government, and so neither Kohatu nor his children are officially registered in the camp. They are not eligible for resettlement to a 3rd country or official protection, though now that they are inside the camp, they have access to food and other services provided by nongovernmental organizations.
Kohatu is pleased that he and his children are more secure from violence and intimidation. They receive food and his children are able to go to a culturally appropriate school inside the camp. Most residents echo these sentiments, but there are still serious issues. Because of the density of the living conditions and the length of time people have been here, pit latrines are full, leading to serious health threats from cholera and other diseases.
After nine years of a daily diet of rice and yellow beans, with no space to grow their own vegetables inside the camp, many complain of the monotony of the diet. Some small, unofficial shops sell other vegetables and the occasional product gathered from outside the camp, but very few people have the money to buy these goods.
Residents of Tham Hin are not permitted to leave the camp to work, nor are there enough skills training or income generation projects inside the camp. A number of individuals do sneak out of the camp to work in the nearby sugar cane fields or rubber plantation, but they are often subject to extortion by the local Thai police. Some women have even been raped, but little effort has been made to find their assailants.
The residents of Tham Hin are largely Burmese Karen, an ethnic minority from the Karen state in eastern Burma. The Karen's military resistance against the current Burmese government has contributed to their exodus from Burma. Tham Hin was created in 1997 to house the Burmese urban refugees - Karen and others - who had congregated in Bangkok. Only about half of the population requested to be resettled permanently in a 3rd country. The US and other countries processed and resettled almost 4,000 of its residents in the last two years, but instead of creating additional space and easing the overcrowding, a large flow of new arrivals has come in the last two years to take their place.
Looking at the faces of Kohatu and his seven children, and at the faces of so many in these camps, it is clear that a more vigorous search for answers for those seeking resettlement or the right to remain in Thailand is imperative.
Tat Maxwell, a member of Refugees International's Board of Directors, recently completed a 10-day mission to evaluate the situation for Burmese refugees in Thailand