By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Monday, June 20, 2011
View inside Mae La Camp
MAE SOT/MAE LA, Thailand— Oblivious to the late afternoon downpour, six children chase each other near the roadside fence at Mae La, the biggest of nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma frontier.
“Please, no photos of the people,” implores a man standing nearby, sheltering against the wall of one of the thousands of timber huts along the roadside. Three of the children are his, although he refuses to give his name, saying only that he crossed to Thailand from Burma's Karen State “more than one year ago” and has been confined to the camp ever since.
Acting on the orders of Tak Provincial Governor Samart Loifah, Thai officials started a headcount in Mae La as well as Umpiem Mai and Nu Pu—the two other camps in Tak province. The census is ongoing, with roughly 40 percent of the estimated 140,000 Burmese refugee population in Thailand unregistered.
The Thai government stopped screening and registering new arrivals in 2005, meaning that there are around 60,000 unregistered refugees from Burma currently inside Thailand, according to Sally Thompson of the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a grouping of 12 NGOs that assists Burmese refugees in the border camps.
In total, Thailand hosts just over 96,000 registered refugees, according to figures released by the United Nations Refugee Commission (UNHCR) in its 2010 Global Trends Report, which was published on Monday to mark World Refugee Day. Pakistan, Iran, and Syria have the largest refugee populations worldwide at 1.9 million, 1.1 million, and one million respectively, with numbers swollen due to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Overall, the 2010 Global Trends report says that “43.7 million people are now displaced worldwide – roughly equalingthe entire populations of either Colombia, South Korea, or Scandinavia and Sri Lanka combined.” Of this total of displaced, 15.4 million are listed as refugees, 27.5 million people displaced internally by conflict, and nearly 850,000 are asylum-seekers, according to the new report.
Thailand has long been a refuge for Burmese people affected by oppression and warfare at home, with the 140,000 actual number of refugees, a figure which includes unregistered refugees, joined by around three million Burmese economic migrants working in Thailand. In 2010, a total of 11,400 refugees in Thailand were resettled to third countries, mostly in the West, making Thailand the second-highest refugee resettlement staging point after Nepal. Of that total, 10,825 were from Burma, according UNCHR Asia spokesperson Kitty McKinsey.
Burma is listed as the world's fifth biggest source country for refugees, ranking close to Colombia and Sudan. As well as Burmese refugees in Thailand, Burma's total refugee output is given by UNHCR at 415,700 and “includes an estimated 200,000 un-registered people in Bangladesh,” mostly Muslim Rohingya from Arakan State in Burma's west.
With the Tak refugee census ongoing, comments from Governor Samart and other senior Thai officials in recent months about sending refugees back to Burma have prompted consternation in the camps.
However, calls for the Burmese refugees to be repatriated are premature, according to people familiar with the situation on the ground in ethnic minority regions close to the Thailand border.
“There is conflict between the SPDC [Burmese military dictatorship prior to the establishment of a new nominally-civilian government earlier this year] and ethnic armed groups in many regions,” says Mahn Mahn, head of the Backpack Health Workers Team, which deploys almost 2,000 medics and associated personnel inside conflict-affected regions of Burma, places where existing health facilities are thin on the ground, or non-existent.
The latest bout of fighting in the northern Kachin State has forced around 10,000 people from their homes close to the Burma-China border, while in parts of Karen State, source of most of the refugees in adjacent Tak Province in Thailand, “the army has a shoot-on-sight policy, which affects civilians as well as militia fighters,” according to Mahn Mahn.