Saturday, February 11, 2012

Burma Refugees Fear of Coming Home

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Burma has promoted a series of political “reforms” to the international community - and given new hope to 1 million Burmese refugees, one of the world’s largest refugee populations.

For years they have been living in frontier camps and hideouts across Burma’s borders driven out by conflict.

But despite peace talks between the government and several rebel groups, sporadic fighting continues.

Banyar Kong Janoi traveled to Mae Hong Son province on the Thailand-Burma border, the site of several large camps and asked refugees when they plan to go home.

An officer at a refugee camp in Mae Hong Son is calling out people’s numbers in front of a long queue of refugees.

They are waiting for charcoal to cook meals.

Basic supplies for refugees have been reduced by 30 percent this year, making life tough.

But they are not allowed to work outside the camp because it’s illegal under Thai law.

Last year 23-year-old Shay Reh secretly went to the Thai town of Chiang Mai to earn money, so his wife could get medical care to deliver their child.

“When I arrived in this camp, they gave us everything, like rice and cooking oil. But later on, they didn’t give us enough support so we had to find jobs outside the camp. Unfortunately, I don’t have a work permit and I don’t speak Thai so I was arrested while working in a factory.”

The police released him after two months in jail and he came back to the camp empty-handed.

Now he relies on only the aid provided by international donors.

And donors are not giving more fund, says Sally Thompson, the Deputy Director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.

“Most of our donors have straight lines in terms of funding so we are getting the same support that we got last year. But we face increasing commodity prices and also we continue to see new arrivals coming to the camps. So in actual Thai Baht terms, we have been spending the same amount for the last three years but what that Thai Baht is actually able to buy has gone down. So, yes, we have been now forced to make cut, significantly cut for 2012.”

In the past, refugees received 15 kilograms of rice for each person, plus some beans, salt, chili and charcoal.

Now, they get less – 13 kilograms of rice and beans, but no salt or chili.

And donors are thinking of shifting their funding to inside Burma.

“They like to think that the time for refugees is coming toward an end, toward hopefully a period when they will be able to go back to Burma. And donors would like to put their money in the country to try to address some of the many humanitarian needs inside Burma. So they are reluctant to increase funding to refugees at the time they feel they should be increasing support inside the country.”

Thousands of people leave Burma every year. The number increases every time political tension rises between ethnic rebel groups and government troops.

Along the Thai-Burmese border, about 5,000 people are fleeing from the war to refugee camps.

15-year old Deh Reh arrived in the camp six months ago with hundred other people fearing that Burmese soldiers would take them to join military.

“We were afraid that Burmese soldiers would come and take us to join military and send us to Shan State, so we decided to leave our home. And we travelled to the border to reach the camp here.”

The Burmese government has held peace talks with ethnic armed groups across the country, but sporadic fighting still continues.

The Thai government, meanwhile, hopes to send the refugees home.

The push to return the refugees intensified when Burma’s President Thein Sein was sworn in last year.

But the Thai government promises not to use force, and says it will wait until it is safe to return.

And it’s still far from safe now, says Mahm Saw, director of the Karenni National Refugee Committee.

“If there’s no fighting going on in our area, we will consider going back. Even there is no fighting, it takes us some time to go back safely because there are landmines everywhere. Besides, the international community should continue supporting us for at least
3-4 years. At the moment, we can’t think of going back home.”

Children are playing outside Shay Reh’s bamboo house.

He has been living here for a decade with his wife, and now their one-year old daughter.

He has no idea when he will go back home.

“We can’t go back even if the Thai government sends us back, because local authorities there already know us. If there are safety guarantees for our return, we might go back; otherwise I am sure they will torture us.”

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