Hope, resilience and innovation on the Thailand-Myanmar border

Leslie Wilson | November 7, 2016

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Refugee children in a camp along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Photo: Leslie Wilson / CWS

For more than 20 years, hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Myanmar (Burma) have lived inside Thailand along the Thai-Myanmar border – next to their country yet far from their homes . Last week, I visited one refugee camp that is home to about 6,000 people, mainly from the Karen ethnic group, who live in isolation from much of the world.

These days, more than half of the camp’s residents are children; nearly 1,800 of them were born in the camp. As their parents, grandparents and neighbors start to think of going home to Myanmar – because recent political developments have made their long-held hope of return more of a possibility, Myanmar is a country wholly foreign to these children. The camp is the only home they have known. And yet, Thailand is not their home, either. It is the land of opportunity and possibility just outside the camp gate, a country so close yet into which they cannot venture. This is because of the agreement struck in 1997, when their families’ and neighbors’ arrival in Thailand was allowed only as a temporary measure to aid those fleeing ethnic strife in Myanmar.

At one time, the camp I visited was home to about 9,000 people. Throughout the decades, none of these people have had freedom of movement beyond the camp and its nearby forested areas, where they plant and harvest vegetables to supplement their subsistence foods. These foods, which include rice and oil, are provided by humanitarian organizations including The Border Consortium [http://www.theborderconsortium.org/], of which CWS is a founding member. Because of our commitment to justice for displaced people worldwide, and also our historical connections to TBC, I serve on its Board of Directors. It was as part of our annual meeting that I visited this camp, which is now experiencing a small benefit from one of the outside world’s technology developments: the debit card.

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Using a debit card and this app, refugee families can purchase custom amounts of certain items. Photo: Leslie Wilson / CWS

Over the years, technology has had little effect on camp life. Since the earliest days, families have received sacks of rice and cans of cooking oil, along with charcoal, and some supplementary foods for families with babies and young children, in monthly visits to a warehouse. Distributions were tracked manually with paper checklists, and families carried their essential food supplies to their homes. Now, with the introduction of modern technology – even to an extremely remote jungle encampment – families receive debit cards, which allow them to buy rice, oil and 10 other essential foods in refugee-run shops and in smaller increments according to their needs and preferences.

Among the several benefits of a shift to this system is the return to some self-agency among families, whose lives have been so circumscribed and controlled by others for so long. Additionally, there is the re-acclimation to a market economy and introduction to one small bit of modern shopping technology, which they will need to know about once they leave the camp’s simple circumstances.

This small innovation aside, it is still very difficult to describe the otherwise difficult conditions in which these refugees live. And this is just one of the nine camps along the border, where more than 90,000 other refugees also live.

This said, it is even more amazing to acknowledge the spirit of hope with which they must, and do, live long days – and years – of challenge and uncertainty.

The conversations I was privileged to have with some camp residents, and the formal comments I heard from their community leaders, make it clear that, by and large, these people do want to return to Myanmar. However, almost everyone agrees that the recent election of a democratic leader and government does not mean that there is automatically sociopolitical safety and socioeconomic security for them.

So, with the possibility of taking the first steps onto the path home still a bit distant and uncertain, people stay engaged with authorized “go and see” groups whose members return to the camp with information and news of possible places and conditions for regaining – or starting for the first time – independent lives. And, among many of the people I met, the hope of return to self-reliance and pride of citizenship endures.

Leslie Wilson is the CWS Regional Coordinator for Asia.

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