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In pictures: life on the Thailand-Myanmar border

In March 2014, the Elders met refugees from Myanmar in Mae La camp in Thailand to hear about the continued challenges brought about by decades of conflict. On World Refugee Day, we take a closer look at life as a refugee in Mae La.

The decades-long conflict between Myanmar’s military and the country’s ethnic armed groups has created one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world. First established in the 1980s, an estimated 120,000 Myanmar refugees currently live in the nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. They face restrictions on movement and have limited opportunities for formal employment and further education.

The vast majority of the refugees come from five states/regions in south-east Myanmar, close to or on the border with Thailand: Kayin (also known as Karen) State, Kayah (Karenni) State, Taninthayi (Tenasserim) Region, Bago (Pegu) Region and Mon State.

Some 66.5 per cent of the refugees in the camps fled from their homes in Kayin State, making them the largest group among the refugee population.

Source: UNHCR

With a population of over 40,000, Mae La – also referred to as Beh Klaw, meaning ‘cotton field’ in the Karen language – is the largest of the nine refugee camps. Situated approximately one hour’s drive from the Thai border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, north-west Thailand, it is just eight kilometres from the Myanmar border.

Originally established in 1984 near the Thai village of Mae La, the camp was transferred to its current location soon afterwards due to the risk of shelling. It has grown dramatically in size since then. As well as taking in refugees who have relocated from other camps that have closed, the services available at Mae La – access to healthcare, training and educational facilities, and the possibility of resettlement to a third country – have attracted some from within Myanmar to cross the border and move to the camp.

Over 97 per cent of the refugees in Mae La are ethnic Karen, most having fled due to the constant fighting between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

This young woman’s family is originally from Ta Kwat Poe village in Kayin State. Her parents arrived in Mae La shortly after they were married; she grew up in Mae La and has now started her own family in the camp. A former manager of one of Mae La’s many shops and stalls, she is currently staying at home to take care of her one-year-old son.

Several religions are represented among Mae La’s residents. Buddhists make up 54.5 per cent of the camp’s population, Christians 34 per cent, Muslims 10.5 per cent and Animists 0.7 per cent.

This building, with its corrugated green iron roof, houses Mae La’s main mosque.

Refugees in Mae La live in small, densely packed huts made primarily with leaves and bamboo. At dusk, when the leaves are less brittle and therefore less likely to break, teenagers sometimes gather them to sell to other residents to thatch their roofs.

Crouching in front of the shop she owns with her husband, this woman is sharpening a bamboo stick to use to fix her roof. She has lived in Mae La for 21 years.

The building materials used to construct the homes in Mae La are highly flammable, making fire a constant danger. A fire broke out in the camp in December 2013, destroying 130 shelters and causing 600 refugees to become homeless. The camp was again struck by fire in March 2014, leaving 300 people without homes.

In this photo, plastic bags filled with sand and water hang from a bamboo pole outside a hut in Mae La. Made compulsory last year, the bags are intended to help prevent fires from spreading in the camp.

This elderly woman is walking past a food distribution centre managed by The Border Consortium (TBC), a group of 10 NGOs that provides aid to refugees on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Initially established in 1984 at the time of the first refugee camps, the group (previously called the ‘Consortium of Christian Agencies’, the ‘Burmese Border Consortium’ and later the ‘Thailand Burma Border Consortium’) has been providing essential relief for some 30 years.

In late 2013, in response to funding cuts from international donors, refugees in seven of the nine camps saw a reduction in their rice rations: many began to receive the new ‘standard’ ration of 8 kg per month, down from 12 kg per month. During their visit to the region in March 2014, the Elders heard that humanitarian assistance for refugees on the border was being reduced.

The camp’s medical clinic at Mae La is run by the international NGO Première Urgence-Aide Médicale Internationale (PU-AMI), which trains health workers and provides healthcare to the refugees.

This woman is making her way home after a visit to the clinic. Originally from Kayin State, she lost her right leg in a landmine. She doesn’t remember where in Kayin State she is from.

There are several schools in Mae La providing the children who live in the camp with primary and secondary education. The schools are also attended by young refugees from other camps, as well as children living inside Myanmar who don’t have access to educational facilities in their villages. Unaccompanied students sleep in dormitories during the school term.

Speaking to The Elders’ staff, a young teacher said that a particular challenge was the high turnover of staff members at the school, with many resettling to third countries. There are also limited prospects for students to go on to higher education. Although some refugees receive support to undertake further studies in Thailand and abroad, these opportunities are rare. (For further information about education in the camp, read the guest blog by Hayso Thako, Acting Principal at one of the schools in Mae La.)

In this photo, an eighth-grade student pauses while completing an exercise during his Geography class. Six other subjects are taught at the school: Karen language, English language, Myanmar language, Mathematics, Science and History.

The seemingly intractable nature of Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts has meant that for many years, resettlement to a third country has been the most appropriate ‘durable solution’ to the plight of many refugees on the border. Since 2005, over 70,000 Myanmar refugees have resettled in the United States. Others have started new lives in countries including Australia, Canada, Finland and Japan.

The United States ended its group resettlement programme for Myanmar refugees in January 2014, citing a ‘natural conclusion’. (Individual refugees with specific protection needs would still be eligible on a case-by-case basis.)

Reading his tablet computer, this man sits on a bench beside a wall displaying International Rescue Committee (IRC) cartoons about resettling in the United States. Refugees preparing to resettle to other countries attend cultural orientation classes to ease the transition to their new environments.

The easing of political repression and the signing of local ceasefire agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups have raised the prospect that some refugees on the border might be able to end their decades of exile and return to their home villages. The government and ethnic armed groups are hoping to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

However, questions remain about whether the conditions in the country’s south-east – a conflict zone for many decades – have improved enough for a large-scale return of refugees. Aside from worries that the landmines planted throughout the constant fighting have still to be cleared, refugees are concerned about limited access to basic services like healthcare and education as well as the lack of livelihood opportunities. Jobs are scarce and reclaiming the land that they previously owned might not be possible.

In this photo, two young refugees look out of the door of their home in Mae La.

Photos: Kaung Htet | The Elders

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