Revitalizing the Local Economy and Helping End Refugee Warehousing
“From a distance, the camps look amazing. You just see hills covered in lush greenery and bamboo roof huts peeking through the trees,” said American nonprofit worker Jessica Hansen, recalling her first impression of the cluster of refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. “I was awestruck by the natural beauty of the scenery.”
But come closer and you see a different picture. You see deforestation, which causes flash floods. You see people dressed in dirty, torn clothes. You see kids covered in mud. And, as Hansen put it, you see a lot of grown, capable people just lying around because they have no other choice.
“There was a lethargic feeling,” said Hansen. “After the refugees have been at the camp for a while without being allowed to work, they become disillusioned. They don’t think that the government is going to help them.”
Some 140,000 refugees live in camps along Thailand’s border with Burma. About one fourth of those refugees, most of whom have fled on-going violence and human rights abuses in Burma, have languished in these camps for over two decades. They are not allowed to leave the camp, seek employment, or otherwise pursue a normal life.
“Warehousing refugees wastes human resources and can have an impact on security,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, director of the Thailand field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). It leaves refugees with little hope and puts them at risk of exploitation, abuse, and human trafficking, he explained.
The infrastructure and housing inside the camps in Thailand are meant to be temporary, despite the fact that most of the refugees have lived there for years. The Royal Thai Government (RTG) prohibits construction of cement houses with roofs, limiting building materials to mostly bamboo and cashew wood. Not only are these homes poorly insulated, they are too fragile to withstand the torrential downpours during the rainy season. As a result, most of the refugees have to rebuild their houses every year.
Sanitation is another major problem—especially during the rainy season. “It’s hard to tell the children not to play in the dirty water,” said Tianchainan. When disease strikes, the available healthcare services are minimal and too often inadequate.
The overall quality of education—the only hope for a brighter future for most refugees—is subpar. There is a shortage of teachers and the classrooms tend to be overpopulated. According to a 2005 Education Survey Report by ZOA Refugee Care Thailand, an overwhelming majority of primary- and secondary-level students complained that the classrooms are too crowded and noisy. Opportunities for pursuing higher education are also limited. An initiative to allow young Burmese refugees to attend Thai universities proved unsuccessful because most of the schools in the camps are not accredited, explained Tianchainan. Discouraged by the uncertainty for their future, many students begin to lose motivation and cease their studies.
Not allowed to work or even leave the camp, refugees in Thailand subsist on food rations, which are provided by an alliance of NGOs and include rice, soy beans, fish paste, cooking oil, and a combination of vitamin supplements in powder form known as AsiaMix. A few vendors near the camps sell fruits, vegetables, and meat—luxuries that are rarely available through internationally-supported food assistance. But in order to be able to purchase these items, refugees have to sell their food rations or illegally leave the camp to earn money, risking arrest and deportation.
“The refugees are not in a position to do anything meaningful. The camp situation doesn’t allow them to work or develop themselves. They have to sustain on what’s given to them,” explained Tianchainan. “By not knowing what’s in their future, they don’t have any hope for tomorrow or next year.” And yet, this mostly hopeless existence for refugees costs millions to maintain.
USCRI is at a forefront of a movement to transition from aid to development in Thailand’s refugee camps and the Thailand-Burma border communities. “We’re looking at a few alternatives to warehousing,” said Tianchainan. The goal is to help refugees integrate into local communities, get jobs, and gain access to Thai education and healthcare.
However, most Thais do not even know that there are refugees in their country. And those who do tend to focus on the negative side effects the refugee camps create, including pollution, soil erosion, and deforestation. Thai communities along the border with Burma consider their living conditions to be just as poor as those in the camps and are unhappy that international assistance only helps refugees. “The local Thai community feels that they are not much better off than refugees. That creates tension and conflict,” said Tianchainan. “We have to neutralize the situation before we can have the refugees interact with the Thai community.”
Addressing the concerns of the local communities would require integrating services provided to people in the camps with those available to local Thai communities. This would ensure that both the refugees and the communities that host them would benefit from incoming international aid and improve educational and health services in the border area. It would also foster day-to-day interaction between the refugees and local communities, which would help dissipate the negative attitude many Thais have toward refugees.
Recently, USCRI Thailand hosted a competition for graduate and undergraduate university students to create a business plan for economic and social development along Thailand’s border with Burma. The Inspector General of the Ministry of Labor of Thailand, Pairat Lumyong, commended this joint effort by the government, academic, and business sectors to revitalize the border community: “Hopefully, the business plans from this competition can be adjusted and implemented in the real world later.”
This just in: USCRI Thailand’s Business Competition Results are in. Find out which innovative product idea won the judges over >>
Read an exclusive interview with USCRI’s first Thai Refugee Ambassador, actress Diana Chungjintanakarn. She talks about the importance of helping refugees and how her role as a refugee spokesperson changed her life.