Myanmar + 1 more

Resettlement of Myanmar refugees under way from northern Thai camp

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 23 (UNHCR) - A group of more than 30 ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar has left the northern Thai camp of Mae La to start a new life in the United States as the second phase of a huge resettlement operation gets under way.

"These refugees who fled fighting in eastern Myanmar have little realistic prospect of going home and they have been leading a very restricted life in the camp for more than a decade," said UNHCR Representative in Thailand Hasim Utkan, who was at the camp send-off with a group of European Union delegates. "So, while it's hard for them to leave a country just across the border from their homeland, they are excited about a new future in the US."

The 31 refugees left the overcrowded Mae La early on Tuesday morning in pouring rain to travel by bus to Bangkok, from where they will fly on to cities in the US states of California, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Between May 16 and the first week of July, 404 refugees are scheduled to depart Mae La for the US, with an overall planning figure of nearly 10,000 refugees from Thailand to depart to America by September 30 this year - the vast majority from Mae La.

"The scale of the resettlement operation is really quite amazing. This is something which has rarely been offered in a refugee situation," said Utkan.

"The resettlement has also changed the camp atmosphere. There's been an injection of movement and change and it's nice to see a glimmer of hope in an otherwise static environment."

Some 45,000 mainly ethnic Karen refugees live in Mae La, one of nine Thai government-run refugee camps strung along the border with Myanmar which shelter a total of 140,000 refugees. Some 43 percent of Mae La's camp population have been submitted for resettlement by UNHCR following a verification exercise in December 2006.

The first phase of the resettlement operation from Thailand started last year from Tham Hin, the most southerly camp. So far, 2,486 persons have been resettled from Tham Hin with another 1,719 undergoing processing.

The current group resettlement operation will dwarf previous resettlement activities. Since 2004, close to 10,000 refugees from Myanmar have been resettled. With the programme picking up speed, the numbers are expected to significantly rise this year - 18,000 from Mae La alone are applying for resettlement.

The resettlement from the camps is being logistically organized by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The operation includes medical screening, a short cultural orientation course and travel. The US government's Overseas Processing Entity, OPE, also has a large operation at the camp.

For many refugees, the prospect of resettlement is both exciting and bewildering. There has been a focus on sharing information, with both the OPE and IOM stepping up efforts to give a more detailed cultural orientation and providing more information about conditions on arrival so refugees can make an informed choice.

"The refugees obviously have a lot of questions about what will life be like on the other side. It's important that they have some communication from those who have left, to help them make up their minds," Utkan added.

Not everyone in the camp wishes to be resettled, but one side benefit for those opting to remain will be less crowded living conditions.