Forced to leave their homes after brutal military attacks against minority groups, millions of displaced Burmese have spent years in refugee camps.
Amid cautious signs of government reform, they are anxious to return home.
But with uncertain futures waiting back home, many decide to stay in the camps instead.
As international donors tighten their belts, they are surviving on the bare minimum. Banyar Kong Janoi takes a look at the harsh reality of Burma’s refugee camps.
25-year-old Chae Mae is weaving with four other women in a workshop at the Mae Hong Son refugee camp.
“I have nothing to do at home so I come here to work, earn money and learn some new skills.”
Chae Mae is paid around 25 US dollars for two month’s work. The money usually goes toward buy ingredients to cook meals.
Sewing is the only job available in the camp and she doesn’t mind working for more than 8 hours a day.
The camp is located near the Thai-Burma border and under Thai law, refugees are not allowed to work outside the camp.
Prae Mae, 45, says that deciding to stay or go home is a challenging decision for her family
“I want to back home but going home is not easy because we have nothing left in Burma: no land to plant crops for our food, and no pod for cooking, no place to live. But staying here is also a struggle because I am the only one who can make some money from this sawing and feed all of my children.” –
Prae Mae has been living in the camp for more than a decade with her four children. Her sick husband died when they arrived in the camp.
They left Burma in fear of army brutality, Prae Mae continues.
“At that time, the soldiers arrested so many people. I don’t know why they did that. We were so afraid to live in our home and decided to leave to Thailand, all of us from the same village. Five years ago my oldest son went back home to collect some of our belongings, but he got arrested by the Burmese soldiers. They killed him.”
The sewing project is run by the Karenni National Women’s Organization to empower women and children living in the camp.
Rosy Htwe, the spokesperson of the group, says the project has been running for more than a decade.
“We want to create jobs for unemployed mothers and children in the camp to get some money. At the same time, we want to provide some clothes for them. They can work for us and we can lend them some money to produce a piece of cloth on their own. By this they’re making some money.”
It’s a small-scale project with around 30 people involved, out of more than 10,000 refugees inside.
The organizer wants to expand the project, but it’s not possible says Mahm Saw, the director of Karenni National Refugee Committee.
“Every time we think of ways to stand on our own financially, there’s always an obstacle. For example we want to produce bricks in a large scale, but this will affect Thai local business. The same goes if we want to raise animals or grow vegetables. Plus we don’t have the land to do that.”
Some refugees are not hiding in Thai camps but inside Burma.
Thousands of refugees are living across the border of Mae Hong Son.
They also rely on international donors who are tightening their budgets.
There are around 300 people in this camp, with 80 children enrolled in the primary school inside the camp.
Ko Han Aung, the camp’s school principal says, it’s hard to maintain the school.
“We still have some money to run the school this year. But I don’t know what will happen next year onward. We have been thinking over the past years how to keep the school if we don’t receive any budget. We now produce key chain from plastic and grow vegetables as part of vocational learning, and we sell them.”
Although they have found small ways to survive, it won’t last long, he adds.
“We depend mainly to our donor support because we cannot get profit quickly from growing vegetables. They are long-term crop productions. It will take 3 to 4 years from now.”