MAE SOT, THAILAND - Northern Thailand has long been home to thousands of Burmese refugees who have fled ethnic fighting and their country’s military government for temporary camps. After Burma’s political opening, more of these refugees are returning home, but many, such as ethnic Karen groups, say it’s still not safe.
Along the Thai-Burma border, 120,000 refugees remain in nine camps, including at Mae Sot, the largest settlement, established 30 years ago.
Most of the inhabitants are from neighboring Karen state. They have fled the fighting and human rights abuse of a conflict lasting more than six decades.
For many, like 19-year-old Saw Lae Mae, who’s spent his entire life on the Thai side of the border, making ends meet by working illegally outside the camp is risky business.
“In the past we had enough rice rations but now there is a decrease in the rations. I’m afraid to get caught by police if we go to work outside the camp. They can fine us 1,000 - 2,000 baht,” said Mae. The fine of 1,000-2,000 baht is about US$30-60.
As Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, has opened, making it more attractive for some refugees to return, international donors have responded by reducing funding for refugee aid groups like The Border Consortium. The shortfall has led to cutbacks on basics like rice.
Border Consortium executive director Sally Thompson said the cuts could not have come at a worse time.
“If we see services being reduced further there is a risk that the structures in the camps will deteriorate and collapse, and really just at the time when you need people as communities to come together to give them the space to be able to prepare for that future,” said Thompson.
Despite the hardships on the border, the long-term camp residents still maintain a sense of stability and security.
That sense does not yet exist in their home territory, where 63 years of war has left the region in shambles.
“If we have to go back to Burma they should prepare the land for us and make sure that there will be no more human rights abuse. Then we can go back to Burma,” said Kaw Lua, a camp resident.
In the meantime, despite Burma’s political transition, the future of the country’s ethnic groups remains uncertain as a new generation grows up in camps just beyond its borders.