On a hot and dusty pitch a dozen teenagers in bright red soccer shirts are scrambling for the football. One player goes down in a cloud of dust to cries of “foul” from the other players. This scene could be in any other village in Thailand but this small field lies in the middle of Tham Hin refugee camp in Ratchaburi province, western Thailand. Some 8.000 refugees from the Karen ethnic group in Burma/Myanmar call this camp their home, one of nine camps strung along the Thai/Myanmar border. They host about140,000 people who have fled the different ethnic conflicts inside Burma/Myanmar.
As the world marks Refugee Day, the plight of the refugees from Burma/Myanmar is a stark reminder that the fate of the largest refugee population in Southeast Asia remains uncertain. Some of these camps have existed for more than 20 years and look like any other village with social services such as schools and primary health facilities. But all the camps are dependent on large-scale funding by international donors. In 2010 alone, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is providing € 8 million to help cover the basic needs of the refugees, bringing the total EU funding since 1995 to over €140 million.
Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and considers the camps as “temporary shelters”. Thai government officials administer the nine camps and strictly control the movement of the refugees outside the camps. The Thai Burma Border Concortium (TBBC), an alliance of international NGOs, has been providing for the basic needs of the displaced, most of whom belong to a variety of ethnic minorities fleeing the ongoing insecurity in the border areas.
The basic needs of the refugees appear to be well catered for with key food items and cooking fuel being provided. ECHO is also funding basic health care facilities for some 119,000 refugees in six camps, including immunization and mother and child care programmes. Some refugees receive training so they can become health workers. But the crowded living conditions pose many health challenges. “Diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses and malaria are some of the most common illnesses and basic hygiene is a daily struggle” says Christine Petri of IRC, one of ECHO’s partners.
But for many in the camps the lack of perspective for a life outside affects morale, especially with the younger generation. For many, camp life is all they know. Schooling is provided, but long-term perspectives are limited. Sport is the only activity which helps break the monotony of life in the camps. In Tham Hin, Mr Oklay of the NGO “Right to Play” has limited resources to organise sporting events for the children. “I only have one small pitch for 3,000 kids in the camp. Once a year, I am able to organise matches with a Thai soccer club outside the camp, the only time they see the outside world.”
Fortunately more and more long term solutions can be found - for example resettlement to third countries. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has assisted more than 60,000 refugees to re-settle since 2004, mostly in the USA, but also in the Netherlands, Sweden and other countries. The ideal long term solution for the refugees is voluntary repatriation to Burma/Myanmar, which hopefully will one day be feasible. In the meantime, however, the Royal Thai Government and other involved actors are also looking at integrated solutions.
Donors, including ECHO, are supporting the CCSDPT and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) in their efforts to implement a five-year Strategic Plan to find durable solutions to expand the refugees' self-reliance. Pilot projects have already started in most camps such as vocational training, livelihood opportunities, healthcare integration, etc. In Mae La camp, for example, agricultural projects introducing small scale intensive farming, including fish ponds, help supplement the diets of the participating refugee families.
David Verboom, head of ECHO’s Regional Support Office in Bangkok remains optimistic despite the protracted nature of the refugee crisis. “The challenge for all of us is to assist the Royal Thai Government in identifying long-term and more sustainable solutions” he explains. “All involved actors, the Government, the implementing agencies, and the donors have taken on the collective responsibility of the Burmese refugees improve their prospects for a better life, a life beyond the camps.”
Regional Information Officer