Uncertainty hangs over border camps

As donations dry up and the push for repatriation quickens, ethnic Karen in Thailand's largest refugee camp struggle with homesickness and discrimination, but most of all apprehension of what they'll find if and when they return to their homeland

' Living here has been a blessing,'' said Ma Tway, a refugee at the Ma La camp along the Thai-Myanmar border. It's not what one would expect to hear at a refugee camp where ''nobody chooses to be a refugee'' is a common refrain. But for Ma Tway who has spent 30 years at the camp since fleeing a military offensive in Myanmar's Karen state, Ma La is home.

HUNGRY: Children at Mae La camp. By the age of five nearly half of children at refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border were stunted, according to a new report.

''Even if we were told to resettle, I would not go back. I hope I can continue living with my husband here.''

Ma Tway is one of around 53,000 Myanmar refugees at Mae La in Tak province, the vast majority, about 90%, are, like her, from Karen state.

Mae La is the largest of the nine refugee camps snaking along the Thai-Myanmar border, which altogether house around 150,000 refugees, about 60% of whom are registered with the Thai government. The Karen National Union and the Myanmar government signed a ceasefire in 2011, a momentous event seen by regional analysts as part of Myanmar's wider process towards democratic reform and reconciliation.

It is still early days, however, and the majority of Mae La's refugees feel it is not yet time to return.

Meanwhile, humanitarian programmes inside the camps have to make do with less because international donors are moving their attention from the camps and inside Myanmar.

Marie Joron, director of Solidarities International (SI) in Thailand, which provides water, sanitation and hygiene services in Mae La, said this trend is leaving refugees in the lurch.

''There is a paradox in that some donors want to shift their funds to Myanmar in order to prepare the way for the refugees' return, but at the moment, refugees are still in the camps and still have needs that have to be covered,'' she said.

Ms Joron said that SI had seen a 10% reduction in funding since 2011 _ ''mainly because some donors [especially the European Union] are not keen any more to fund refugees in the camps''. SI's funding has dropped by 30% since 2008.

Access to food has also been affected. The rice ration for refugees at the camp had gone down from 15kg to 12kg per person per month over the last year. Refugees now receive around 80% of the minimum nutritional requirements for survival in their food rations and must find the rest for themselves, according to the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which helps manage the refugee camps.

The TBBC's latest report says ''by the age of five, nearly half of all children were found to be stunted'' due to poor nutrition, and notes that rice prices have skyrocketed while the funds the TBBC has to support them have remained the same.

TBBC executive director Sally Thompson said she is encouraged by reform moves inside Myanmar which are reflected in the refugee situation. ''Mae La has seen significant reductions in the number of new arrivals ... since 2011. Over the last decade we averaged 75,000 new arrivals per year. Last year we saw a drop to around ten thousand.

''This means there are less attacks on civilians, less restrictions on movement, and less checkpoints to go through. It's the first time in decades that there is some real hope.''

But she is also concerned over the falling donor interest in the thousands of remaining refugees, which she says could have devastating effects. ''Now more than ever we need to invest in the camps. We shouldn't throw away 28 years of investment. At last there's a possibility that the refugees might be able to go back in the foreseeable future.''

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report called ''Ad Hoc and Inadequate'' has also criticised the shift in policy by donors: ''Some donors, notably the Europeans, have already begun switching their assistance to what is called a 'livelihoods strategy', to develop skills to live and work outside a camp environment. Such an approach will only work effectively if refugees are allowed to leave the camps to work.''

The TBBC says that in the last year the EU reduced funding for health care and sanitation programmes at the camps by 2 million (78 million baht), re-allocating the funds to the livelihoods strategy.

Many argue that Thailand's vague refugee policy contributes to an already unstable situation. In fact, Thailand has no official refugee policy. ''It's very informal,'' Ms Thompson says. ''Essentially their status is 'illegal migrants whose deportation has been temporarily suspended'.''

Thailand has not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and does not have a refugee law or functioning asylum procedures. It regards refugees living outside of official camps as being in the country illegally.

The HRW report says the lack of a clear policy allows refugees of all nationalities to be ''exploited and unnecessarily detained and deported''. HRW argues that unregistered refugees particularly are left in an impossible position. The report says that while the camps ''offer some element of protection, by remaining in the camps without any source of real income, refugees become completely dependent on aid agencies'', and that Thai authorities are sometimes physically abusive when they apprehend refugees outside the camps. The report described how a 33-year-old Karen man who was living in Mae La was asked for money and then beaten when Thai police arrested him in May 2008. He said that they took his UNHCR ID after finding he had no money.

Bill Frelick, HRW's refugee programme director, said, ''Thailand presents Burmese [Myanmar] refugees with the unfair choice of stagnating for years in remote refugee camps or living and working outside the camps without protection from arrest and deportation.''

A DEADLY CALM

Although most of the fighting on the border has stopped since the ceasefire, violence persists and people are still dying daily. This naturally influences refugees' decisions on whether to return home. Paw Klu, 62, is a community leader who provides security for refugees at the camp who sees danger across the border. ''It's very confusing, there are many groups with guns in the area ... Things are very tense.''

Eastern Myanmar is one of the most heavily mined zones in the world. It's been estimated that 5.2 million people live in areas contaminated by landmines, some in areas that have been relatively conflict-free for months, or even years. In 2011 there were 381 documented casualties from land mines, mostly civilians, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL says the actual number of casualties could be much higher, and that the Myanmar army and armed groups are still laying mines in some areas. Experts estimate that it will take many years to remove the mines, and there is currently no scheme in place to do so.

Several countries, including Australia, have contributed funds to remove landmines from southeastern Myanmar, but as Ms Thompson from the TBBC said, ''You can't demine while they are still laying landmines. There has to be an agreement to stop laying landmines.''

Another big concern of the refugees at Mae La is whether they will be able to find suitable work if they go back to Myanmar. This dilemma is most keenly felt by the camp's young people. Despite the limitations of the camps, they do have modern comforts, and many of the teenagers wonder how they can adjust to a life of farming rice fields in Karen state.

Ms Thompson says families are divided on staying or leaving. ''Half the people in the camps are under 19 years old. They've never been farmers. They want to be part of the modern world. Undoubtedly there will be family frictions over going back.''

Mae La is the centre of studies for thousands of Karen youth who would often be unable to access education beyond the primary school level inside Myanmar. Naw Mu Mu Wah, a 20-year-old student, said: ''Even if we graduate from schools in the camp and then go back to Burma [Myanmar], what job opportunities await us? I do not see any.''

Speaking for thousands of Karen youth educated in the camps who are torn by the taste of modern life in the camps and loyalty to a homeland that's still dominated by subsistence farming, Mu Wah says she feels stuck between two worlds.

Saw Hsa Htoo, a 31 year-old social worker at the camp, wants to know if Myanmar's government will return land taken by the military or provide compensation. He admitted he is pessimistic about the prospects for either. When asked about this, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the organisation was ''not aware of any discussions on this topic''.

''I won't feel safe until the Burmese government withdraws their troops and allows ethnic people to have a say in politics. Not until this happens can we say that the situation has truly improved and that we can go back to our land,'' said Saw Htoo, his face illuminated by candlelight in the darkened camp.

REPATRIATION ON THE HORIZON

Though no deadline has been set, the TBBC's latest report says ''for planning purposes [TBBC is] assuming that refugees will begin to return to Myanmar in the next one to three years''.

Mrs Thompson confirmed this, saying the TBBC is ''planning for return within the next three years. Individuals have started to go back. In 2012, about 3,000 people went back, but it is not known if these returns were permanent or individuals going back temporarily to look at the situation.

''It's quite clear that the camps will be closed at some point. Solutions will have to be found for the residual camp population.'' Ms Thompson added.

Meanwhile, the US State Department announced in January that it would stop taking applications to resettle Myanmar refugees in the US in June this year. The US has resettled 62,000 refugees from the camps.

A spokesperson for the International Rescue Committees Resettlement Support Centre said: ''We are reaching the natural conclusion of the group resettlement programme. The resettlement programme will continue until we have completed the processing of every application received by the deadline for each camp; we expect the resettlement programme to continue for at least two years.''

Senior Thai officials, including Interior Minister of Interior Jarupong Ruangsuwan, have assured refugees at Mae La camp that they won't be forced to return to Myanmar. In a recent story from Karen News the interior minister is quoted as saying that in order to repatriate refugees in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, ''the Burma government needs to have a systematic plan in place and this can only be considered after the political situation improves to the stage where everyone can trust the situation''. In a visit to Mae La camp on Jan 16, Mr Jarupong said ''if there is a genuine peace in Burma, refugees won't need to be repatriated, they will go back of their own will''.

But many people, including a large percentage of the camp residents, don't believe that day has come yet. The UNHCR says there has not yet been a ''substantive three-way discussion on a possible tripartite agreement'' between Thailand, Myanmar and the UNHCR to repatriate refugees.

''A lot more needs to be done in southeastern Myanmar before refugee repatriation from Thailand can become a reality,'' said Vivian Tan of the UNHCR. ''For a start, ceasefires should be translated into formal peace agreements. Returnees should have material security, such as access to land or a means of livelihood they should be guaranteed safety from landmines and provided with legal security.''

''Any return to Myanmar must be based on the informed, individual and voluntary decision of the refugees,'' said Ms Tan.

THE 'RESIDUAL POPULATION'

What about those refugees who have lived in the camps for decades and don't wish to return to Myanmar, having no idea how they would survive there. Too old or weak to set up new lives inside Karen state, what will be done to support them and what role can they play in the future of Myanmar?

Win Kyi is 59 years old and a shopkeeper in Mae La. Like Ma Tway, he first came here 30 years ago.

He spoke to Spectrum in his small shop, the wall littered with pictures of Thai and local Karen pop stars. He finds it hard to trust Myanmar's military to uphold their side of the ceasefire.

''If you look at just the 'skin' of the situation it seems much better, and you may think that we Karen now have freedom. But look at the situation in Kachin state, where the Kachin had a ceasefire for 17 years, and now they have just faced a big offensive from the Burma army.

''Looking at this situation makes it hard to trust Burma's government.''

When asked if he would go back, Win Kyi sat thinking for a few minutes.

''For people like us, over 60 years old, it is hard to get a job. All you get are food stamps. I miss my homeland, but returning would be difficult for someone old and in bad health like me.''

He says that becoming a refugee was his last option. ''We never wished to come to live in Thailand as refugees. Here we have no land of our own and living conditions are difficult.''

Ma Tway agreed. ''Sometimes I get very homesick and want to leave the refugee camp. It's very hard to go outside the camp to work, as we have no legal documentation to travel outside. You are always fearful of leaving the camp.''

Yet it's not likely she'll be leaving Mae La of her own free will. ''Now, I am too old to get work in Burma ... and even if you work hard, you are forced to pay taxes to different armed groups, leaving you with little or no money for food.''

''The price of food is very high too,'' she said. ''What will we do? My husband is an invalid; he's deaf and he can't walk. I have to take care of him all the time. It's a big responsibility for me.

''Even if the Thai government and UNHCR tell us to resettle, I cannot go back. I hope they'll let me stay in the camp and continue living with my husband here.''

LIVES IN LIMBO: Clockwise from above, Paw Klu, Naw Mu Mu Wah and Saw Hsa Htoo, Karen refugees at Mae La.

TO DINE FOR: Some refugee families at Mae La camp fear that they won’t be able to earn enough to feed themselves if they return to their homeland.

refugees collect water at Mae La camp. Conditions are somewhat sparse, but refugees have access to many modern conveniences.

women wash clothes for their families at Mae La camp.

NO HURRY TO LEAVE: Win Kyi in his small shop. The 59 year old has lived in the camp for 30 years.

About the author

Writer: Saw Mort & Henry Zwartz