Painful Past and a Future Without Hope-Karenni Refugee

Karenni Refugee Camp 1, about a one hour drive from Mae Hong Son City, in northwestern Thailand, is my home. I have lived there among 15,000 of my people for nearly 10 years, after being born in Camp 3, which was an hour’s walk away.

I have been away from the camp for 2 months. When I return I will have to sneak back in, avoiding the armed guard at the main checkpoint, because I had to sneak out when I left. Karenni refugees cannot get permission to leave the camp from the Thai border guards whose job is herd us like 15,000 head of cattle inside the confines of the camp, about 3 square kilometers.

I am grateful to have a place to live in Thailand, however, my home feels like a prison, cut off from the rest of the world.

As human beings, we should have the right to live in our own village inside our homeland, with full recognition of our citizenship and protection of our basic human rights.

Karenni Refugee Camp, near Mae Hong Song, northern Thailand

Karenni Refugee Camp, near Mae Hong Song, northern Thailand

Instead, the military-controlled government of Burma has driven us off our land as it waged a long-standing war against the Karenni insurgency, forcing upwards of 20,000 civilians to become refugees in Thailand.

My father fled to the Thai border after the 1988 revolution and was joined by my mother and their three children in 1991. My younger brother and I were born inside the Thai border. So, we have no Burmese birth certificate and are not recognized as citizens of any country, only as official refugees by the UN.

Even though the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) provides food rations to refugees including rice, cooking oil, salt, sugar, chilli, yellow beans and mixed grains, camp residents worry their children are suffering from malnutrition because of a lack of dairy foods, meat and fish. As a result camp social workers say the IQ of refugee children is lower than that of Thai children living nearby.

The food ration is appreciated; however, refugees say they need to work to supplement their diets but are prevented by restrictions on movement placed on them by Thai authorities.

So, some families raise chicken or pigs to improve their diet and earn money. Some families leave the camp illegally to forage for eatable plants in the nearby jungle because they cannot afford to buy food in shops.

During the planting season camp residents work as  daily wage workers in paddy fields in nearby Ban Nai Soi Village, where they can earn 50-100 baht per day.

Others open small shops inside the camp selling linen or groceries.

A small number of educated refugees work for NGO and CBOs in the camp.

Some parents cannot give pocket money to their children. So, refugee children collect beer cans, plastic water bottles and other recyclables to sell to get a small amount of money to buy some snacks.

Health services are not adequate in the Karenni camps. There are 4 small clinics in camp1 but there is no hospital to provide treatment of serious health conditions. Medics give antibiotic medicines for minor illnesses but cannot treat severe diseases. There is no medical diagnostic equipment in the camp. For instance, there is no X-ray room. That’s why many refugees suffer from untreated diseases, even though camp authorities and medics sometimes send emergency patients to hospital in Mae Hong Son.

Refugees also suffer from mental stress and disorders such as depression because they are forced to live in cramped quarters. Large families live in small huts made of bamboo construction and thatch roofs, which are built very close together on narrow laneways.

For example, eight members of my family lived in our small one story hut, measuring about 150 square foot, for six years. Now, there are five adults living there.

As well, refugee children and young people are cut off from the world, not even knowing what is happening in the other Karenni camp, about three hours away. They don’t know anything because they cannot go anywhere.

The stress and hopelessness associated with this is suspected of leading to suicides among young people and adults.

Many teenagers use alcohol excessively, leading to social problems in the community.

Some youths get married as young as 13 and start families because of boredom and because they have few or no options to further their education or for employment.

Even if they have goals and ambitions, they cannot break out of the limitations of life as refugees in Thailand. When I was young, my goal was to be a medical doctor. However, education opportunities were limited to the camp schools because I could not leave to study because I had no travel documents. My dream was not attainable. I had to work as a social worker in the camp after I finished my studies at high school. I had no choice.

Many Karenni refugee children cannot continue their studies in post-ten schools because there are only 3 post-ten schools in both camps. Some students, who finished 12th grade, are fortunate to get jobs in social organizations but many students who stop school after grade 10 become unemployed because the number of applicants exceeds the number of positions available. Even though bright students finish 12th grade in Karenni post-ten schools, they cannot continue their studies in Thai universities because they don’t have any citizenship documents and the Karenni schools are not recognized by the Thai education authorities.
Sometimes, we refugees are looked down upon by other people. There is a stigma attached to being a refugee, even among our own people.

When my Burmese friends who live outside the camps asked me, “Where do you live? Where were you born?” I felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to answer their questions.

If I answered, “I live in Thailand”, they were comfortable. They told me, “That is good. You are free to go everywhere. You can go wherever you want to go.”

However, if I answered I was born in a Karenni refugee camp and grew up in the camp, many people looked down me and asked, “Oops, are you?”

Sadly, I have had many experiences like this.

We don’t blame our parents and our community for these problems. The situation is caused by the civil war and political instability in Burma which caused us to flee to Thailand as refugees.

However, because we are not citizens of Burma or citizens of Thailand, we have no rights under any laws or constitution. So, we cannot demand our rights be protected or even restored.

Thailand has received us on humanitarian grounds. The Thai authorities are not bound by any internationally recognized refugee treaty or law in their treatment of us.

Our frustration and anxiety is heightened because forced relocation to Burma by the Thai government could lead to us  hiding in the jungles of Burma from the brutal Burmese Army, as Internally Displaced Persons.

Even if we return to Burma under the policies of a new, more democratic government in the future, there may still be problems because those of us born in refugee camps in Thailand have no Burmese birth certificate, ID card or citizenship documents.

We have no ability to choose the direction of our lives now or in the future, unlike many other human beings in the world.

As a young Karenni woman, I think about marriage and having children. However, the thought of my child following in my footsteps, being born in a Karenni refugee camp here in Thailand, with no hope in the foreseeable future of a life outside the camp, saddens me greatly.

I want more for my children, the same as I want more for myself.

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