x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Refugees languish in limbo

Thousands of ethnic Karen, many of them children 'orphaned' by poverty, are forced to remain in a crowded camp in Thailand.

Karen families walk to church. Despite living in a refugee camp in Thailand, members of this Myanmar hill tribe are reluctant to leave the camp and move away from their homeland, which has made resettlement programs hard.
Karen families walk to church. Despite living in a refugee camp in Thailand, members of this Myanmar hill tribe are reluctant to leave the camp and move away from their homeland, which has made resettlement programs hard.

MAE SOT, THAILAND // In the jungle-covered mountains across the Myanmar border a few kilometres inside Thailand, Sisi Sisi, a teacher, stirs a bubbling red curry over an open fire. In the dark dormitory dining hall behind her, two schoolgirls quietly peel hardboiled eggs. Within the hour, egg curry will be lunch for 80 children. These students - like most everyone in the Mae La refugee camp - are ethnic Karen, members of a Christian hill tribe native to Myanmar persecuted for almost 60 years in one of the longest continuing independence struggles on Earth. But unlike most of their classmates these 80 children are essentially orphans, sent across the border by mothers and fathers too poor to afford the uniforms and basic supplies needed for school in Myanmar. Because these children are not legal refugees they can never leave the camp's barbed wire fence and step into Thailand. They cannot go home either. Because they left Myanmar illegally, they risk death or imprisonment should they be caught by the Myanmar military during a visit home. For years the United Nations has spearheaded a relocation scheme to move refugees to western countries in an attempt to empty the jungle camps. But there remain thousands of Karen who are not going anywhere. The Mae La camp is one of nine refugee camps in Thailand, most of which were organised in 1984. With 40,000 refugees, Mae La is the largest camp in Thailand. It is a place where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Karen live in legal limbo. The problem is bigger than a handful of social orphans, though among the Karen their plight resonates strongly. Inside the smoky dorm kitchen with Ms Sisi, Henry Kyaw looks on. He helped build the schools, the church, the orphanage and a handful of other buildings in the camp. Mr Kyaw could leave the camp if he wanted to, but he said he would rather stay to help his people. The children, for one, depend on him. "In Burma [also known as Myanmar], the students have to buy everything like books and school supplies so [their parents] cannot support them," Mr Kyaw said. "These parents have many children and they cannot earn enough to care for them so the parents contact me and I care for them." Mr Kyaw left Myanmar in 1985. He had some English skills and he worked hard to become a Thai citizen and find a job to support the growing camp. Between 2001 and 2007, Mr Kyaw worked on a Princess cruise ship, sailing the world and remitting his cash to the camp to support the schools and teachers. Starting in 2005, a handful of western governments began accepting Karen refugees. By 2007 more than 10,000 refugees had left. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called the programme the biggest resettlement project in the world. But it is far from a perfect solution. To get resettled means first getting official refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and it is more than orphans who have trouble meeting this requirement. Naw Janey worries her family will not qualify. Ms Janey moved to Mae La this year after Cyclone Nargis destroyed her family's bamboo fishing hut on the Irrawadday Delta. "I lost my home and everything inside. I didn't know where to live or how to get money [to rebuild], so we came to the Mae La refugee camp," she said. Because they were not running for their lives or persecuted by the government, her family is not a typical refugee family so they have no official status. A teacher back home, Ms Janey's husband now volunteers at a camp school. In Myanmar, Ms Janey sold noodles from a street cart, but in the camp there is not enough of an economy to sustain a cart. So instead she spends her days at home, a modest bamboo hut built by Mr Kyaw, high up on a hill in the refugee camp. She said she has no idea what the future holds for her, though she said she would like most to return to a peaceful homeland. Many refugees eligible to move overseas often refuse to leave the camps. A spokesperson for International Organisation of Migration (IOM) said about 60 per cent of qualified applicants do not want to leave the camps and it cannot force them to go. "From an IOM point of view [we want to] to satisfy the government which is taking them as well as the people who are participating," said Pierre King, head of IOM's Mae Sot office. "The best option is voluntary and safe return followed by local integration, with the third option being resettlement." Mr King said most Karen refuse to leave because they do not want to abandon the struggle. Since 1949 the Karen have been resisting the government of Myanmar in the name of an independent homeland. With his English skills and his education, Mr Kyaw might be able to go to the United States, but he will not apply. "I don't have any plan to go to America. I want to work among the Karen people and support the Karen people," he said. Mr Kyaw said about 3,000 Karen teachers left the Mae La camp this year. However, he suspects those who left dream of returning to a democratic Myanmar one day, too. Yet, Mr Kyaw said, a dream for a peaceful, democratic Myanmar is "hopeless". Ms Janey is similarly grim. "There is no hope for the future because in Burma even when the UN talk to the government about their human rights violations, the government doesn't care. They say it's their country and they can do what they want." Among a younger generation there is hope, though not for resettlement. September Paw is 22 and has lived in the Mae La camp for 10 years since her family fled Myanmar after soldiers attacked her village and burnt their house down. In Mae La, she attended a camp school and studied English. Now she speaks the language fluently and is determined to use her education for the benefit of her people. Today she lives in Mae Sot, the nearest Thai border town, 55km south of Mae La. Although Ms Paw has a sister and a brother in the United States, she does not want to join them - she is determined to make a difference closer to home. She works with a local aid group, the Karen Human Rights Group, helping co-ordinate research trips into the Karen homeland. Across the border she sees and documents human rights abuses. "I went to the Karen state once this year in February and I saw many Karen villagers who had to flee their village because [government soldiers] attacked them," Ms Paw said. She said the villagers fled with nothing except a bit of food and were living hand to mouth deep in the jungle. Ms Paw said her group publicises cases like this to force international awareness of the problem. She believes work like hers will put pressure on the Myanmar regime to force change. "Resettlement is not a sustainable solution," Ms Paw said. "It's important we solve the root cause of the problem? the exploitative policies of the Burmese government." jwright@thenational.ae