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Myanmar refugees on Thai border – a forgotten people 

Jul 23. 2017
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By Masakazu Hamasuna
Yomiuri Shimbun
Asia News Network

ON THE UN-designated World Refugee Day on June 20, I visited Nu Po refugee camp, which has a population of about 10,000, in a mountainous area of northwestern Thailand.

Since the 1980s, battles have intensified in Myanmar between armed ethnic minority groups and the national military. As a result, people trying to escape with their lives flowed into Thailand in great numbers. Currently about 100,000 people are living in nine refugee camps, including Nu Po camp, along the Thai-Myanmar border.

The Thai government normally does not allow foreign media to enter refugee camps in the country. However, in recent years, it has allowed them in to participate in events organised by volunteer organisations on World Refugee Day. 

It took two days by airplane and car from Bangkok to reach our destination deep in the mountains. Shabby houses made of bamboo and wood stand along paths muddy with rainwater. The children are energetic and run around outside their houses in bare feet, but many of the adults sit in dimly lit rooms with seemingly nothing to do. Speaking with some of them, I sensed a dull atmosphere surrounding them. “I don’t want to return to Myanmar. It’s also difficult to migrate to the United States. I have no idea what to do,” said a 26-year-old ethnic Karen woman.

In March last year, Myanmar’s first civilian-led administration in about half a century came into being through a democratic election. Since then, refugees have been urged to return to their country. However, the civil war has not completely ended and there are many refugees who hesitate to return due to painful memories such as their relatives being killed. Even if they returned, they would have no way to find homes and jobs.

Many of the refugees want to move to countries other than Thailand, especially the United States. But the United States is not accepting new applications for resettlement of refugees, and the possibility of the administration of US President Donald Trump resuming the acceptance of new applications is low. In addition, the Thai government has announced a policy to soon close the refugee camps. Concerns about where to move weigh heavily on them.

There is also worrisome data: The International Organisation for Migration released a report on June 19 saying the suicide rate at Mae La refugee camp, which has a population of about 37,000 in northwestern Thailand, was more than triple the world average. In many cases, people hang themselves or drink herbicides, according to the report. Without hope for the future, they may be driven into a corner emotionally.

At Nu Po camp, I heard a 28-year-old Karen man complaining about decreasing rations of rice and other food. The quality of goods delivered to the refugees is reportedly deteriorating due to a series of withdrawals from the camp of non-governmental organisations that were providing food assistance. This is partly because sufficient funds cannot be obtained as the attention of the international community has shifted to Syrian refugees and others.

When I left the house of the Karen woman, I asked if I could take a photo. She willingly agreed to my request, but when I looked through the lens her smile seemed plastered on her face and she had a gloomy look.

I could feel the concern and pain of these “forgotten refugees”.

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