Rethinking Rations for Refugees Along the Thailand-Myanmar Border

CWS Thailand | March 29, 2019

Sher Ka Myee in her shop. Photo: CWS

Sher Ka Myee’s shop looks like many grocery shops or convenience stores around the world. She sells lots of different foods, including eggs, oil, chicken, pork, fish, vegetables and several types of rice. She sells bottled water and other drinks, as well household items like shampoo and soap.

She has owned this shop for a decade now, but recently there have been some big changes in how she does business.

Sher Ka Myee’s shop is inside Ban Don Yang Refugee Camp in Thailand. Ban Don Yang is home to about 2,000 refugees from Myanmar, most of whom fled their homes in Myanmar in the late 1990s amidst violence and internal conflict. It is the smallest of the nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, where more than 85,000 refugees live.

The big change for Sher Ka Myee’s shop has to do with the way that the people in the camp get their food. Until recently, Ban Don Yang had a physical ration system. Each person waited in line each month to receive a set amount of basic foodstuffs – rice, cooking oil and pulses – from a large warehouse.

Now, more and more refugee camps around the world are switching to a debit system that uses shops like Sher Ka Myee’s to replace the warehouse ration system. Ban Don Yang made the switch a couple of months ago, and the other camps along the border are also transitioning.

Since the change, rather than receiving food rations each month, people now get a debit card with a certain amount of credit on it to use in a couple of shops in the camp. The credit covers as many as 30 food items in the shop, so it gives people something they haven’t had in a long time: choice about what THEY want to eat. Maybe they want to eat chicken this week, and pork next week. Everyone can do that now – not just the people who could previously afford to buy meat in addition to their rations. Or they can switch between different types of rice, or have more vegetables one week than the next.

Sher Ka Myee had her shop long before the debit card system took effect, but now she’s one of a couple of official ration retailers in Ban Don Yang. She says that people are buying more meat now, including chicken, pork and fish. Another of the shop owners said that when the debit card system took effect, she sold out in one day. People were used to getting all of their rations at once, so they did the same thing in her shop – they stocked up on the first day that they had their credit. Over time, people realized that they could come back to the shop whenever they want, so they didn’t have to buy everything in a day. That’s another way that the new debit card system gives people more choice; in addition of a choice of what to buy, they can also choose when to shop.

The refugees living in Ban Don Yang have lost so much: their homes, the land where they lived and farmed, and, in many ways, their freedom. This debit card system is one way to help restore some of that lost freedom and allow people to take control of an important part of their lives: what they eat.

We are proud to support The Border Consortium, which is the main provider of food, cooking fuel, shelter and many other forms of support to refugees in all nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

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