Half of the Burmese refugees living in camps in Thailand are under 19. Most of these young refugees were born in the camps and have never been to Burma.
After living in refugee camps in Thailand for over a quarter of a century, more than 140,000 Burmese refugees who fled civil war at home are starting to feel like their welcome has worn thin. One of our Observers, a refugee, tells us how pressure is growing on them to return, despite facing a highly uncertain future back in Burma.
Since the end of military rule in Burma two years ago, the country has undergone a number of reforms and entered into ceasefire agreements – albeit fragile ones – with a several rebel groups from ethnic minorities. This has led many to hope, or fear, that the roughly 140,000 Burmese refugees living in camps in Thailand may soon be repatriated.
Though the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says there is as of yet no timeframe for this, they have organised workshops to prepare refugees for repatriation. Meanwhile, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a Thai organisation under royal patronage, has recently been handing out surveys in the border camps asking refugees to answer a number of questions about what they hope for their future, notably ranking in order of preference whether they would like to stay in Thailand, go back to Burma, or resettle in a third country. It also asks about specific plans upon return to Burma.
This has not gone over well with some refugees: more than 3,600 of them living in Mae La camp have signed a petition saying they refuse to take part in the survey, claiming that the questions are biased to favour repatriation. The UNCHR has said that participation in the survey is encouraged so it can gather accurate information to prepare for the refugees’ possible return, but that it was not mandatory.
Community leaders from seven Burmese refugees camps on Thai-Burma border take part in a repatriation workshop in Mae La refugee camp.

“I don’t want to go home – there are still Burmese troops in my village”

Paw Mu Nan, 57, lives in Mae La camp with 45,000 other refugees. She and her family fled their village in northern Karen state in early 1980, after Burmese troops attacked it and took over their land. She belongs to the Karen ethnic minority, like most of the camp’s occupants.
My family and I spent three years living in the jungle until we were finally able to cross into Thailand in 1983. We’ve lived in several refugee camps on the border since then. All my children save for the eldest were born there. Until now, there was no remote possibility of going home.
During the repatriation workshops I attended, NGO workers told us there is no set timeframe for repatriation, but that they want us to be prepared because we’ll have to return home some day. We were told we would have to stand on our own feet then. We learnt such concepts as empowerment and self-integration, and practical skills like agricultural planning and livestock breeding. I liked it – it made us think in detail about how we will live and what careers we might have if we return home.
However, I don’t want to go home at this moment because I don’t feel safe – there are still Burmese troops there. While there is no one left in my village, I know from people living nearby that they’re still occupying it. Despite a ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU), we have no guarantees that we will get our land back. We lost our family’s paddy field to the troops, which was our source of livelihood.
“It’s getting harder and harder to live in the refugee camps as aid is reduced”
Many refugees here in my camp are now applying to resettle in third countries as they fear they will soon be forced to return home. Two of my children have already resettled in the United States, but I don’t want to go there because I can’t speak English. [Editor’s Note: The United States recently is now ending a program under which it had resettled 105,000 Burmese. Moreover, about half of the residents in Mae La camp do not have official refugee status, which means they are ineligible for resettlement in a third country.] Plus, I’m getting old. I would prefer to stay in Thailand, where I feel safe and where I’ve been living for two decades now.
However it is getting harder and harder to survive in the refugee camps, because the aid has been progressively reduced. [As Burma opens up, international donors have been giving more money to NGOs inside Burma and reducing funding to NGOs based on the Thailand-Burma border]. Some of the food we used to receive, such as oil and canned fish, have been cut off. Same with construction materials – we can’t rebuild our houses anymore, just make small repairs. Nobody expects to be able to stay here for much longer.
Kids playing ball in Mae La refugee camp.
Part of Mae La refugee camp.
Post written with freelance journalist Saw Yan Naing. All photos by him.