Karen refugees face uncertain future in Thai border camps
By Peter Janssen Mar 7, 2011, 3:16 GMT
Saw Htoo, a 60-year-old Karen resident of Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border, is trained in organic vegetable gardening managed by the Dutch-based ZOA Refugee Care, funded by the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), in Tak province , northern Thailand, on 03 March 2011 EPA/SOMCHAI KWANJITSWET
Mae Sot, Thailand - Saw Htoo, a 60-year-old ethnic Karen resident of the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border, does not want to go to Texas.
A former village headman in eastern Myanmar's Karen State, Saw Htoo came to Mae La in 2006 after the Myanmar army stationed troops near his town in the northern district of Maung Maung to fight Karen rebels.
'There was a lot of shooting, and we couldn't grow anything,' Saw Htoo said.
He decided to make the three-day trek to Mae La in western Thailand's Tak province, a massive 'temporary camp' of bamboo huts with leaf roofs that has been home to about 40,000 Karens since 1989.
Saw Htoo's wife and three eldest children arrived in Mae La in 1995. His wife became sick and died in the camp. The children were resettled in the US state of Texas three years ago.
Although his children tell him nice things about Texas over the phone, Saw Htoo said he doesn't want to join them and give up his land in Myanmar, once known as Burma.
'I don't want to go to Texas,' he said. 'If the situation gets better in Burma, I'd like to go home because I have land there.'
Saw Htoo is not the only one who wishes he could go home.
Some members of the international aid community have become frustrated with the seemingly endless flow of assistance, and refugees, to nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, some of which have been operating since 1984 as the Karen rebels fight for a federation with more autonomy for their people and as the Myanmar army fight them.
An estimated 140,000 to 150,000 refugees live in the camps, which get about 66 million dollars a year in humanitarian aid to provide them food, shelter, health care and education.
'The level of funding that is going to these refugee camps is very high - 2.5 times higher than the cost for Palestinian refugees,' said David Verboom, regional head of the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.
EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva is to visit Thailand on March 14 to 15 to visit the camps and assess the situation.
One thing she was expected to push for is a better screening process for camp residents.
Karen refugees who were living in the camps before 2005 and have been registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are eligible for resettlement to third countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
An estimated 60,000 have been resettled over the past five years, but the camps' populations have remained constant because of a steady flow of new arrivals.
Some of the arrivals are paying local authorities bribes to get into the camps, Thai and aid officials acknowledged.
In the Mae La camp, about 18,000 residents are eligible for resettlement, and 20,000 others were awaiting screening to determine their refugee status.
But the Thai government is reluctant to restart the screening process.
'I don't think we should give them refugee status,' Tak Governor Samart Loifah said. 'If we close the door, that would encourage them to go home.'
The international aid community argued that if Thailand restarts its screening process, which has been dormant for three years, they could distinguish the genuine refugees from the economic migrants and begin the process of reducing the camp populations.
'We're ready to discuss it with the EU and UNHCR, but the real unknown is the question of aid,' Samart said. 'If they reduce their spending on the camps, that will set the deadline for closing them.'
The European Humanitarian Aid Commission has already started to phase out its spending on the Karen camps, down to 8 million euros (11 million dollars) last year, compared with 9.5 million euros in 2009. Meanwhile, it is shifting more assistance to projects across the border to Karen State or to projects that encourage refugees to work around the camps.
One such project, managed by Netherlands-based ZOA Refugee Care, is teaching 56 refugees from Mae La camp organic farming techniques on land rented from Thai farmers.
Saw Htoo, with an eye on his farm in the Karen State, has joined the project, but he still wonders about when peace would return to his homeland.
Recent fighting between the Myanmar army and the Karen National Liberation Army rebel group in northern Karen State has sent thousands of new refugees to the border.
'We are fighting for our land in the Karen State,' said Saw Htoo, who was in the Karen army in 1985-88 before becoming a village headman. 'If the Burmese government changes it's policy and does not come to fight us in the Karen State, there will be peace. Then I can go home.'
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