MAE HONG SON, Thailand — From dawn until late at night they queue up, waiting to call their relatives, friends and loved ones overseas. The crowd waiting at the phone booth are refugees from Mae La Oon camp in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province. About 15,000 people call the camp a temporary home.
At the common phone centers, set up by ethnic Karens with Thai citizenship, many of the refugees end up discussing kote pway, or pocket money, which is the small remittances sent to them by their families abroad.
Although no official statistics exist, it has been estimated that about half of the refugees in Mae La Oon use remittances to survive. As non-governmental organizations pull aid donations out of the Thai-Burma border, preferring to invest in “development” in-country, life for those who receive nothing from abroad will become harder.
Sha Lo, a refugee who often gets money sent from abroad from relatives and friends in Canada, said: “It will be very hard for us if we don’t get the remittance. But many don’t receive any remittances as they have no relatives and friends in third countries. Those people survive very poorly. They eat a meal [worth less than US $1] per day. And they don’t dare to complain.
“It [the remittance] is very helpful as we receive less food and supplies from the NGOs now. Now they cut food such as cans of cooked fish and chilli, and reduced cooking oil, yellow beans, salt and other supplies. We can buy some extra food because of the remittances.”
Sha Lo said he gets between 3,000 and 10,000 Thai baht ($100-$336), several times a year. Others get far less, he said, while some receive several times what he does each year.
Kyaw Mu, a Karen refugee who resettled in the US state of Wisconsin, said he has to send about $330 each month to his family in Mae La Oon, as he has to cover his mother’s medical bills.
Refugees who resettle in Canada, Australia and Europe are often able to send back more money, as those who move to the US often can only get very low-paid jobs.
Several refugees in Mae La Oon camp said that they see the remittance not only as a source of financial support to individual families, but also as a business. Some invest in businesses, setting up shops, while others buy motorbikes to use for better transportation. A few people buy cars and land in accordance with Thai law with the help of their relatives or friends who are members of the local hill tribe.
Vivian Tan, the Asia spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said 81,700 refugees from Burma have been moved to other countries from Thailand since the UN resettlement program started in 2005.
As the government and ethnic armed groups have signed ceasefire agreements in recent years, and as the outside world pushes for opening Burma up for business, the resettlement program has ebbed and the prospect of closing it down altogether is on the table. The US has already said it will stop taking in Burmese refugees by June.
Peace processes and attempts at national reconciliation will eventually lead to “a situation conducive to the repatriation and return of displaced persons,” according to a recent report by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group responsible for the refugee camps in Thailand.
Naw Paw Mu Na, secretary of the Mae La Oon camp, said remittances would decrease as refugees resettled in third countries are struggling to make ends meet themselves.
Sha Lo criticized the international aid groups for pulling out funding for the refugees in Thailand, saying they were opening offices in Rangoon, but not in border regions, where most people live in poverty.
There are about 150,000 Burmese refugees living in nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and most of them are ethnic Karen from eastern Burma who fled their homes due to the government army’s offensive in their homeland.