Karen Refugees -Their Plight + Story of Survival

Karen Refugees -Their Plight + Story of Survival

A girl from Karen Refugees Settlement. (Atti-la/Flickr)

Mae La is the largest of 10 refugee camps along the Thailand Burma border.  They are made up of ethnic minorities (primarily Karen refugees) fleeing atrocities and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar (Burmese) Military government.

Read my story about visiting the Mae La Refugee Camp + Karen Refugees.

The Karen (pronounced Kor-EN) People are a semi-nomadic tribe who traditionally lived in the hills. Karen is the largest of 20 minority groups in Burma.

The military government has used the minority peoples as slave labor,  burned their villages, planted land mines around their villages and murdered entire villages of the Karen hill people.

Karen Refugees -Their Plight + Story of Survival

Thousands of refugees have been driven out of Burma by the brutal assaults of the Burmese army.

There are currently 10 camps, with more than 150,000 people and over 60,000 children, stateless, unwanted and stuck between countries, in a ‘temporary emergency’ that has been going on for over 26 years.

In the early 1980’s, the Thai government started setting up temporary refugee camps for the Burmese refugees.  The refugee camps have become more strict with who can enter and leave -a refugee has to apply for papers to work outside of the camp and in order to get into the camp, they have to apply for asylum from the Thai government.

Population of Refugee Camps

According to the figures used by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), the 10 camps have a total estimated population of 148,793 (based on how many people are fed by the TBBC  and 90,489 actual refugees officially registered by the UNHCR (which takes years to obtain).

Mae La has an estimated pop of ~49,418 however, only those who are registered are actually counted.  The estimates are an underestimate because there are many reasons why some refugees don’t want their presence officially known.  There may actually be upwards of 80,000 people who live in this camp!

Mae La Refugee Camp

The camp is densely populated on only 4 square kilometers of land, 50,000+ people are living.  The people are considered “temporarily displaced” because they are not recognized by the Thai government.

Mae La Refugee Camp is a huge village with very little space, which is rationed and only small gardens are allowed, and entire families (including grandparents, and other relatives) often live in a small house ~150 sq ft -the size of a large bedroom in the west.

Photo Credit: Burmese Dreaming

There is no official market or official shops, since there are no actual working jobs or money besides what the few people who work outside the camp bring in.

Many people weave cloth and sell items from their homes, teach and study.

There is no electricity and no plumbing in the camp.  -and no homes or structures in the camp can be built with concrete without permission, because technically the camp is “temporary” and has been for over 25 years.

Life in Refugee Camps

There are people of various religions Buddhism, Christianity and Muslim living peacefully together -perhaps united by the larger issue of having no true home.

A big problem is that there are so many refugees who have nothing to do but sit around the camp and wait -waiting for things to improve, for a country to go back to, or for something to change.   One of the beautiful things about these people is the warmth -they only have each other and for the most part, they seem to value and appreciate their community.

The refugees in the camps have 2 main hopes for their futures:  1) apply for repatriation to 1 of the 8 countries with repatriation programs or 2) wait to return to a free Burma -if and when there is no longer ethnic cleansing.  Repatriation is a long process that includes an application and interviews.

The Children

For the children in the refugee camp -this place is all they have known.  Education is very important for them -to give them some hope for the future and skills that they can utilize.

Art is also very important for many children… I found this beautiful blog –Unseen Mae La with beautiful art by very talented Karen Refugee Children. I was actually able to participate in some art classes taught by my friend – a Thai art teacher from Chiang Rai.

Another blog I found with very powerful ‘journal entries’ from children in the Refugee Camps:

mae-la-refugee-camp-daily-lifeFrom KarenRefugee Journal

There is a lot that anyone who wants to volunteer here can do -you just have to get connected with the right NGOs and organizations.

Medical volunteers are very much in demand.  The numbers of refugees are growing and oftentimes, the clinics help to connect people with work and education opportunities.

Read my story about visiting the Mae La Refugee Camp + Karen Refugees.

An eyeopening and insightful article on Understanding refugees: Four principles

There are some beautiful stories and experiences people have had with the Karen Refugees and they have shared them in different ways online.  One lovely story about a Karen Refugee lady who came to America and was being helped to see a nurse and the story of the interaction of 2 women from very different backgrounds -here is a glimpse:

“Teacher,” Sunny said, her hand on her chest, “Sometime I feel heavy, full.  Sometimes I feel empty.”  There were tears in her eyes.  ”My husband say, maybe I’m sad.”  Although Sunny is warm and loving, in her thirty years she has lost a mother at three, lost a father, lost a husband, buried a child, lost a homeland, and a  language.  I believe perhaps her father and or husband may have fought for the Karen  cause.  She tells me, “I never forget them.  I never forget.”  Her siblings are scattered around Burma, Thailand and one in St. Louis.

She tells me that she loves America, that she will never go back.  She tells me that in her village, a quiet village away from  the police, the children all played freely, the mothers doing their chores. One day the police came. “Rattatat, rattatat,” she goes, and then motions with her arms a sweeping motion.   “Mother’s look for babies,” she pantomimes, “go into trees, police get closer, babies cry.”  I stare at her, wondering if she was a child or a mother, wondering if maybe that little daughter didn’t die of natural causes.  ”No, she shakes her head,”  I never go back.  ”Rice, I carry, walk all day,”  and she pats the top of her head.  ”No Piggly Wiggly!”  she makes a joke and we giggle and then she says it again, “Piggly Wiggly.”  I’ve taken her to Piggly Wiggly, and seen the amazed look on her face at all the food, which she buys in bulk to feed those five men of hers.  Read More…

A look at the Politics and the atrocities happening to the minorities in Burma from VOA:

This documentary gives you a deeper look at the Karen Refugees and their story of survival: (part 1)-

Part 2:

Photo Credits: Atti-la/Flickr

Burmese Dreaming

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