Now, our team is alive and well in our last outreach destination in Asia: Cambodia. Our first week is being spent in the capital, Phnom Penh, and our final weeks will be within Battambang. So far, so good. I'd like to share something from our last week though in Thailand. You see, we went to a refugee camp. I’m in no sense suitable to write and inform about what life is like in this camp. I’m no historian, and the small pieces of information I know about refugees and migrants has been gathered over the last few months. I’m learning though, alongside my teammates, about the effects displacement has on an individual, on their future, on people-groups and, consequently, on countries. To not write about some of the things we’ve been shown on our travels feels like I’m silencing something that could do with being spoken about. And so, again I’ll begin…
We went to a refugee camp. I’ve never been to a camp before, nor had I cared to adjust my clique expectation that all camps are dusty tents clustered together as far as the eye can see. Not Mae La. On the Thai/Myanmar border north of Mae Sot/’Little Burma’ is Mae La, the largest of seven border refugee camps, stretching 3km long. It is the home of around 50,000 refugees, over 90% of whom are Karen, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minorities. The Karen people, like other ethnic groups of Myanmar, have endured decades of civil war and attack from the military of their own country. In what some refer to ethnic cleansing or genocide, we have heard stories of Karen people having their villages raided by soldiers, land mines being implanted, livestock being shot, war crimes such as rape and Karen people being confiscated by the Myanmar army to work as soldier’s porters or to walk before them in land mine zones. For some it was as simple as this: to keep their life meant to leave their country. This is where Mae La comes in. Mae La is beautiful. Closely packed wooden huts huddle and cling to rolling jungle hills and a striking cliff face. Mud paths weave their way through the crowded settlements as barbed wire frames Mae La into its boundaries. The refugees within Mae La hold UN refugee status and are permitted to live in Thailand only within the camp. Whilst security hasn’t always been as strict as it is now regarding entering and leaving the camp, refugees who choose to leave Mae La to live or work elsewhere face the constant threat of being caught by police officials. The consequence of such an instance can vary from paying a small or large bribery fee, being put in prison or being deported back to Myanmar. Though there is official and basic care provided for the refugees in Mae La camp, in terms of food and education, there is an overriding sense of hopelessness and boredom within the confined communities from being stuck in one place.
A Mae Sot NGO worker shared insight with us on the contrasting experiences of Myanmar’s official refugees and its illegal migrants, both living within Thailand. Whereas Mae La receives official care and food rations, the migrant communities (living outside of refugee camps) have to fend for themselves and make an effort to survive. The people of Mae La generally lack the drive and incentive to grow in what they’re doing because there isn’t an outlet for being industrious. We were told that between the refugee children in Mae La and migrant children in Mae Sot there are differences in perspectives on life, one has been given more and one has been given less, but in both cases there is poverty. Whilst there is hopelessness in Mae La, there is fear and direct conflict in some of the less protected migrant communities. In both cases you have people where they aren’t supposed to be, people who are displaced. One has a piece of paper saying, ‘I’m allowed to live in this area surrounded by bamboo and a barbed wire fence’, and another lives hoping on a daily basis that they won’t be arrested or taken advantage of.
In hearing from refugees and ministries that work alongside the Burmese people, it is clear that the fragile and volatile state of Myanmar makes the country impossible for many to live in. The sad component of the stories we hear is that life on the Thai side of the border bears its own share of injustice, threat and fear. Some of the realities for migrants who illegally enter Thailand are: hard, gruelling and dangerous labour for little pay, succumbing to corruption and bribery if caught by police officials, no access to education or healthcare and no freedom to travel outside of Thailand. Despite the hardship of life as a Burmese migrant or refugee in Thailand, every person I’ve asked has shared that they don’t regret coming; they don’t doubt the necessity of the decision that they made.