The Elders


Making a living in limbo: Work as a Myanmar refugee

Following on from our photo story about life in Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border, we take a closer look at the livelihoods of the camp’s residents. How do the refugees make a living while confined by the laws of their host country, and what effects will Myanmar’s political developments have on their future?

First established in the 1980s, Mae La refugee camp near the town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, north-west Thailand has grown into the largest of the nine refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

The decades-long conflict between Myanmar’s military and the country’s ethnic armed groups has turned Mae La into a bustling community of around 40,000 refugees, some of whom have spent their entire lives in the camp.

The Royal Thai Government (RTG) administers the refugee camps; it refers to them as ‘temporary shelters’ and the refugees as ‘displaced persons fleeing fighting’. The terms emphasise the fact that the camps were intended to be impermanent structures whose inhabitants would return home when the conditions allow.

Officially, life in the refugee camps is sealed off from the rest of Thailand: refugees are ‘contained’ within the camps and are not legally permitted to work outside. In practice, however, the light enforcement of this policy has meant that many refugees have been able to leave the camps to work informally in the local community.

Given this historically relaxed approach, the Thai military government’s recent crack down on irregular migrants and its imposition of travel restrictions for Myanmar refugees have alarmed many camp residents. Some are concerned that these, and several other developments, are precursors to their forced return to Myanmar.

The signing of local ceasefire agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups over the past few years have raised hopes that the country’s war-torn border states might soon be safe enough for refugees to return. However, alongside fears about the landmines in the area, the paucity of basic services and whether they would be able to reclaim their land, refugees are concerned about the lack of livelihood opportunities.

Although job prospects in Mae La are severely limited, many refugees are able to earn a small income through petty trade within the camp. In this photo, a young boy arranges plastic shoes at his family’s shoe stand.

This woman is selling freshly-made dumplings to passers-by.

Aside from engaging in casual labour and running a small shop or stand, refugees in Mae La earn money through keeping small kitchen gardens, raising a few chickens and pigs, and working with one of the aid agencies operating in the camp. Some also receive remittances from relatives living in Thailand or in other countries.

Mae La’s busy market area is home to a variety of shops, from small stands selling food and basic household items to stores full of clothing and electronics.

This photo shows a mobile phone display case at the front of an electronics shop.

In 1998 – after continued influxes of refugees from Myanmar into Thailand – NGOs were given permission to start vocational training programmes in the camps. Aimed at providing refugees with hard skills and increasing their self-reliance, subjects have included cooking, baking, sewing, hairdressing, electronics and mechanics.

This photo shows two sisters and their mother at work in the family’s sewing, embroidery and bicycle repair shop. The older sister (left) is embroidering a small boy’s blazer, for which she will earn 80 Thai baht (approximately 2.50 US dollars).

A woman makes mini hot dogs in the vocational training restaurant run by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

Classes are held at the dedicated training kitchen across the road several times a year, after which students are able to practise their newly-acquired skills in the restaurant. Some later open their own shops or stands in Mae La.

The Elders’ staff spoke with May Ehdoh (left), who manages the vocational training restaurant. Originally from Ayeyarwaddy Region (formerly called Irrawaddy Division), she has been running the restaurant for several years.

Alluding to the ongoing talk about whether refugees would soon be returning to Myanmar, she pointed out that the name of the programme was changed this year although the course content remains the same. Previously called ‘Vocational Training for Refugees from Myanmar’ (VTRM), it was rebranded as ‘Vocational Training to Prepare Refugees for Transition’ (VTPT).

When asked whether she was considering repatriation, she said: “It’s not our decision whether we stay or go. If we have to go, we go. But I don’t have anything anymore in Burma/Myanmar – I don’t have a house, I don’t have any land.”

At this project run by Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR), refugees designated as ‘Extremely Vulnerable Individuals’ – unaccompanied children, single parents, the elderly and the disabled – produce bars of soap to sell to NGOs for distribution in the refugee camps.

Originally from Kyaukkyi in Bago Region (formerly called Pegu Division), this elderly woman now lives in Mae La with her two children and five grandchildren.

Stirring the soap mixture with a large wooden pole, she said that she would go back to Myanmar if the conditions were right: “It’s our place; if there is peace and security there, we would want to go back. But if there isn’t, we’ll stay here.”

Photos: Kaung Htet | The Elders



Please read our moderation policy before commenting

  • All comments posted on will be moderated before publication.
  • In making comments, please be constructive and treat others with respect.
  • Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, inflammatory statements or accusations, personal attacks, discriminatory or abusive language will not be posted.
  • Links: Please do link to other relevant sites and articles to enrich the debate. Please do not link to inappropriate or offensive websites or use signature links in your post.
The Elders are independent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders.

We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.

Visit the archive to see our past newsletters.

The Elders website uses cookies. Click here to accept the Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy when visiting this site.