MAE SOT — Since 2005, when resettlement began, a network of brokers has evolved to assist individuals from Burma who wish to enter the refugee camps and resettle in a third country.
The black market business has helped many to escape Burma— but not always the people who fit the criteria and need resettlement the most.
Residents at the three main camps around Mae Sot, who are waiting for resettlement, blame the influx of “fake applicants” for the long delays they endure. Many claim that the “pseudo-refugees” leave the camps first, deferring the resettlement of real applicants.“I see many fake refugees coming into the camp. They pay the brokers and the camp authorities. Then they get resettled first,” said Bo Bo, a resident at Nu Po camp.
He explained how he came to the camp in a large group from Mon State where their land was stolen by Burmese government forces. As farmers, they had been stripped of their entire livelihood. So, with nothing left, they fled to the border. “We have to wait longer because the brokers help the fake refugees into the camp and they leave first. It’s not fair on us, We remain in the camp with nothing while they continue to run their businesses, often returning to Myawaddy and Rangoon,” he said.
Bo Bo claimed that many fake applicants entered Nu Po camp last year and that 27 had already arrived this month [September]. He explained that two brokers are working in conjunction with the palat (camp coordinator) to get people into the camp and sent quickly to a third country.
It has been alleged that the camp authorities are working in cahoots with the brokers and have become immersed in the corruption and fraud that has sprung up around the resettlement process. Residents claim that brokers pay the palat for their clients’ entrance to the camp, allowing people with no valid refugee claim to enter.
As a result of the black market which unscrupulous Burmese brokers have developed, money has become so important in the camps that new arrivals find it very difficult to settle into their new lives as refugees in Thailand.
“We can’t get into the camp because we have no documents and we were just released from prison,” said Ko Than, a recent arrival in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border.
Having just finished a two-year sentence for his part in the 1988 protests, and deciding he had no future in Burma, Ko Than came to Thailand to apply for a new life in a third country where he could make up for the time he lost while in prison.
For ex- political prisoners like Ko Than, coming to Thailand with their families and getting safely to the refugee camps is difficult. If they go by taxi they run the risk of being arrested by the Thai police and either sent back to Burma or paying heavy bribes.
In contrast, the bogus refugees, who have traveled to Thailand without a solid refugee claim, have time to prepare for their trip well in advance and save up the necessary amount of cash. Once in the camp, their money will buy them influence and ultimately a better life than the real asylum seekers—and that creates tension and grievances in the camps.
“I do believe that refugees have the right to make money and better their lives, but it’s not fair that opportunists are allowed to buy their way into the camp and take the good homes and rations— more than the democracy activists who have given up everything,” said Kyaw Gyi, a resident of Mae La camp and former political prisoner.
However, not only are “real” refugees losing out as a result of the broker networks, but also the brokers’ customers—the bogus refugees—who often end up stranded in the camps. Many use their life savings to flee the economic woes of Burma, having been promised an easy trip to the West.
Once in Thailand though, it’s often a different story— they’re left in the camp while the brokers flee. With no realistic case for asylum—or any money to get back to Burma—many are left powerless and afraid.Those who do complain find themselves in trouble and sometimes are evicted from the camp by the camp authorities.
In some cases, the brokers don’t just cause delays in the resettlement of refugees, they steal their chances of it.
Myat Thu, a former All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) member based in Mae Sot, told The Irrawaddy how friends of his had been accepted to go to the United States but were told at the last minute that they couldn’t go.
“When it came around to leaving, they met with officials who told them people registered with their names had already been resettled in a third country,” he said. “When they tried to prove who they were, the administrators just shrugged and said, ‘That’s the black market.’”
The issue of identity theft has been accepted by resettlement agencies, but people continue to speculate who and what has allowed this problem to occur.
“Substitution is a major problem,” explained a former UNHCR worker who wished to remain anonymous. “No one is sure who is behind it, but it’s very possible that some UNHCR staff members are involved—they have power in the camps and oversee what goes on.
“It’s hard to tackle because everyone is too scared to complain. People in the camps don’t know if they are complaining to the actual people who are involved in the corruption and are worried that everyone will find out,” she said.
“It needs to be stopped though. Every time it occurs they are robbing the real refugees of their chance to resettle,” she added.
The refugee and migrant worker communities in and around Mae Sot have long accused UNHCR staff of being involved in the broker network. There’s no evidence to prove it, but many say they know people who have paid staff to arrange resettlement.
“If you have money the process is a lot easier,” said Ko Myo Thein, a former political prisoner and resident at Umpiem camp. “You can use a broker who will hand money over to staff at the UNHCR, whether you are a real refugee or not. Then your application will be accepted and you will be sent over to America.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Kitty McKinsey, the UNHCR senior regional public information officer in Bangkok, said the agency takes the allegations very seriously. “We have a zero tolerance policy on fraud and misbehavior of any of our staff,” she said.
Despite the problems, the resettlement process on the Thai-Burmese border continues to be one of the most successful in the world.
As one NGO worker put it: “The work which has been done here is unprecedented. People are being resettled extremely quickly. There are around 40,000 who have already been resettled in third countries where they are enjoying fundamental rights and freedom from confinement in the camps.”
However, there are still activists, former political prisoners and victims of conflict, languishing in the refugee camps feeling that they have lost out to bogus refugees.
Ko Myo Thein expressed this frustration, saying: “The real refuges remain in the camps, while fake refugees rob them of the happy new lives they deserve. The broker network is to blame for this.”