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In Thailand, Bringing Justice to Burmese Refugees

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For a long time, Saymeh* lived in terror. Every evening, her husband would come home to their thatched stilt house in a camp for Burmese refugees in western Thailand, drunk and angry. The beatings and rapes that ensued would sometimes last for hours.

"Eventually I divorced him, but he would come to my house and abuse me anyway," Saymeh says, looking out through her window at the jungle-clad hills surrounding the camp. "Many of my neighbors knew what was going on, but nobody helped me. Maybe they were too afraid."

The Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp is one of nine camps strung along the Thailand-Myanmar border that are home to an estimated 140,000 refugees. Most are members of ethnic minority groups who have fled ongoing conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Over 15,000 members of the Karenni ethnic group live in Ban Mai Nai Soi, a maze of thousands of houses only a couple of kilometers from the border.

Unemployment, alcohol abuse and the stress of living in the camps for years on end with no prospect of ever returning home have contributed to the high levels of rape and domestic violence among the refugees here. While women and girls who are sexually and physically abused are cared for by refugee staff trained by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), punishment of the perpetrators is rare and usually left to camp leaders, themselves refugees, who are reluctant to address what is seen as a private family issue.

Things have changed however since the IRC began opening legal offices that for the first time enable refugees to address their grievances, including rape and domestic violence. The legal aid centers-the first ever to be to be established inside a refugee camp anywhere in the world-opened in 2007 in camps near the Thai towns of Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot. The walk-in centers are staffed by lawyers who help the camp's population take their cases to the refugee leadership or, in serious cases such as murder and rape, to the Thai courts. Through the program, the IRC has also helped the camp leadership to develop their own legal code, which sets out rules for resolving less serious crimes like theft or minor assault in the camp, as well as a system for referring serious crime to the Thai police.

Shane Scanlon, who coordinates the legal aid program for the IRC, says that the centers play a major role in informing camp residents about their legal rights and responsibilities as refugees, and are also increasingly addressing problems like domestic violence.

"In surveys of refugees we found that most did not know that the Thai law applied to them," Scanlon says. "Now this is slowly changing."

This was certainly true for Saymeh. After months of almost daily abuse, she finally sought help at an IRC- run women's shelter whose staff accompanied her to the legal center.

"I decided to see what they could do for me," she said. "I wanted justice; I wanted my ex-husband in jail."

The legal staff at the center took Saymeh's testimony and documented her many bruises and cuts. She was then taken to an IRC- supported medical clinic for treatment of her wounds. A few days later, the IRC's legal manager Wannipa Tuaton accompanied Saymeh to the police station in Mae Hong Son, the nearest town, where her complaint was registered.

"The next step was to help Saymeh and the public prosecutor prepare her case," Wannipa says. "Saymeh was very brave. Many times, women are reluctant to report these crimes because of embarrassment or fear of retaliation."

The case proved strong. After a trial that took seven months, Saymeh's ex-husband was sentenced to eight years in a Thai prison. The verdict set a powerful legal precedent that refugees in Thailand's camps not are above the law and can be tried and punished for rape and domestic violence.

"Winning a conviction in a case like this is unique in a refugee camp in Thailand," Scanlon says. "It will now be easier to file and win similar complaints."

So far, more than 1,000 refugees have been assisted by the centers in cases ranging from crimes, such as rape, murder and human trafficking, to making sure that food, housing, health care and education reach people in the camps.

To improve the chances of bringing charges in cases of domestic violence-where it is often the victim's word against that of the accused-the IRC legal and women's program has introduced a unique tool to help abused refugee women bolster their evidence: forensic photography. Fifteen women refugees working in IRC-supported medical clinics and domestic violence shelters, recently received training and cameras to document injuries sustained by women during rape or domestic abuse.

"Photographs, especially if taken soon after injuries have been sustained, can be extremely compelling evidence should a woman decide to pursue justice," says Barbara Coll, who manages the legal assistance centers in Mae Hong Son. "We have successfully used photographic evidence in a number of the cases in which we have represented clients."

For Saymeh, the conviction of her ex-husband means that she can raise her children in peace; that she doesn't have to fear the sound of her tormentor coming up the stairs to her home.

"The legal system stopped him," Saymeh says. "If it hadn't, he would have ultimately killed me. I live in peace now."

* Not her real name.