Karen Refugees growing up in a Jungle Prison

This month, I was based in Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai/Burma border, near Mae Sot, Thailand.

I lived with Burmese refugees in Mae La Camp for two weeks while I taught them principles of international human rights law. I was able to give lectures to 60 fourth year College students every morning, and run a human rights tutorial with them every afternoon, applying what we had learned in lectures that day.

We looked at what is law, what is justice, what is the rule of law, systems of government, the United Nations, how to advocate, how to lobby and at international human rights principles. 

I had the privilege of gifting each student with a Universal Decleration of Human Rights and United Nations Charter handbook - which was gifted to us by the United Nations Association of Australia - to whom I am very grateful. 

I was inspired by the Karen minority group’s perseverance and peaceful life, as they recalled stories of persecution in Burma, how the Thai authorities burned down their school in 2012, and how prior to that, the Burmese Army rained down shell-fire onto the refugee camp from the top of the Mountain[1], under which the Camp is situated.

Regardless of these challenges, these adult students aspire to be doctors, lawyers and politicians - and be a part of setting up their own independent Karen State. 

The reality of their situation is confronting - with half a million refugees in the Refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border, they are permanently stuck in this Jungle prison - but for a third country accepting them as refugees. They cannot return to Myanmar, Thailand does not accept them or provide for their basic subsistence needs, and they currently do not have access to Universities, employment, or other basic opportunities. Even the food rations they live on is meager and insufficient. 

The Current Situation in Myanmar:

Despite the current ceasefire and peace talks in Myanmar, the political situation is unstable and unpredictable. Minorities are still targeted by the Buddhist Burmese, and Aung San Suu Kyi is at the mercy of the Myanmar Military, in accordance with the Constitution[2], as Myanmar is not democratically free of Military oversight.

The Constitutional powers that the Burmese Army have are problematic, and have led to many violations of human rights in Myanmar, including an increase in extortion cases of several hundred thousand Kyat from mining owners near Hpakant township and property destruction, an increase in mortar and artillery attacks near Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions near Laiza[3], and arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, and the use of firearms in order to capture suspects.[4]

Despite a reported improved environment for freedom of expression and media in Myanmar, the government’s commitment to improving the human rights situation has faltered and failed, with an increasing number of political prisoners in Myanmar. 

It was reported in mid July that the Burma Army is currently engaged in an escalating conflict in both northern Shan and Kachin states. The situation has left several dead, including a 22-year-old man killed by a landmine, and others injured, such as a 39-year-old mother wounded by shrapnel and incapacitated. There has also been an increase in violence in Northern Shan State, where Burma Army activity is directed at the Shan State People’s Party (SSPP).[5]

The security situation in northern Burma remains fragile as Indiscriminate torture, beatings, and killings continue to persist in both Kachin and Shan state(s).[6]

Abuses against women continue in conflict zones, including sexual violence, and since 2012, women have been under-represented in Myanmar’s peace efforts, and on most peace process committees and bodies of both government and ethnic armed groups: women have been completely excluded.

The Situation in Mae La Refugee Camp:

While based in Mae La Camp, I learned that approximately 50,000 children are schooled within the Camp by the refugees themselves, that access to health care, social services and disability services are minimal within the Camp, and that even food rations - which is mainly rice - have been cut in half. Many individuals cannot access food rations from UNHCR, as they are not yet recognised by UNHCR – so families are forced to share their rations with those in need. This is a symptom of the failure of international organisations such as UNHCR - whom our Government is funding to feed and process refugee claims.

Mae La refugee camp is the biggest in the region – totaling half a million people who live at the mercy of UNHCR, local NGO’s and the Thai authorities – including the Thai Army. It is also a unique refugee camp, as many have lived in the Camp since 1998, or were born in the Camp, and are subject to life in their prison jungle. Thailand does not accept refugees or assist them as they are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, the Burmese refugees cannot return[7] to Myanmar or be repatriated for fear of their life and safety, and their refugee processing for a third country to accept them seems unrealistic and far-fetched.

While living in the Camp[8] with the Refugees, I became increasingly aware of various human rights violations within the camp, including the Thai authorities engaging in routine corruption, such as taking two months of the meager refugee’s rations of rice away as punishment, bringing drugs into the camp and giving it to the young boys to sell on their behalf, and the shocking truth that girls are routinely sexually assaulted and are exploited – and they have no access to legal, psychological or emotional help. 

I heard one story of a young man’s uncle who tried to work to save up the money he needed to take his pregnant wife to the hospital – he was caught by the Thai Army, and made to work for two months at their instructions, and was then forced to give all of his wage to them at the end of his two month work – which he undertook under duress and – without a wage – which may be considered slavery.

UNHCR Refugee status are bartered for food or other necessary items, children go hungry and unschooled, and parents are doomed to bring up their families in the Jungle prison refugee camp that is just a shell-fire distance away from the Burmese Army, situated right in the middle of the trafficking highway in Asia[9].

The Burmese Refuges are sold as invisible domestic slaves, onto fishing vessels, and into brothels, subject to constant harassment, coercion, abuse and the threat of deportation - as has been reported by Human Rights Watch and Radio Free Asia.

You can watch the Radio Free Asia Report on Traffickers Targeting Refugee Camps, September 2011, You Tube video here.

Thai police often ask for bribes – in various situations, including if the refugees leave the camp for work[11] – conformed by Human Rights Watch Reports - that impunity in committing crimes against the Burmese Refugees is frequent, and includes arbitrary arrest, detention, forced labor, exploitation, and an abuse of the right of refugees to have access to food, education, health care services and other social services, including ID Cards and the right to work and provide for their families.

The displaced persons in Mae La Camp are therefore vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, sexual assault and corruption. There is a lack of support for this people group in the middle of the jungle with nothing around for miles, but the Thai Army on one side, the Burmese Army on the other, and criminals passing through.

I therefore have the following concerns:

  1. UNHCR need to ensure that all persons living in the Mae La Refugee Camp in Thailand on the Thai/Burma border have been processed for refugee status;
  2. All refugee children should have access to rations, education, health, and social services – as necessary;
  3. IOM needs to have a more active presence in the Camp;
  4. Refugees in the Camp need to be protected against Thai Army corruption and control;
  5. Women and girls need to understand their rights not to be sexually assaulted, how they can receive help if they are, and action needs to be taken to prevent such horrific crimes occurring;
  6. Mae La Refugee Camp needs to be recognised as part of the Trafficking Highway in Asia, and more action needs to be taken to prevent these vulnerable people groups from being targeted, exploited and trafficked;
  7. IOM needs to have a more active role educating the refugees of their rights within the Camps, and bringing awareness to their rights mechanisms in Thailand; 
  8. UNHCR needs to have a more active role in these camps, ensuring daily, ritual corruption, abuses and exploitation does not take place; and 
  9. Australia needs to consider accepting these legitimate refugees within our humanitarian program – or these families will continue living in their Jungle prison indefinitely.

How you can help:

I strongly believe in the power of education and empowering vulnerable people in assisting them with set-up micro-business loans. 

Education and the dignity of work has the power of empowering people to change their own circumstances. 

If only given a chance. 

$150 AUD provides board, tuition and food for one student for one year at the KKBB College in Mae LA Camp. 

You can be a part of changing the lives of these vulnerable persecuted people group - and prevent their fate as exploited trafficked persons - by putting towards their education and empowering them to make positive choices for their futures. 

If you would like to donate to the education of a Refugee student at Mae La Camp on the Thai/Burma border, please contact Fighting for Justice Foundation today. 

If you would like to send the children school supplies, please contact FFJF today. 

If you would like to send these students a letter of encouragement, please contact FFJF today. 

You can also write a letter to the Royal Thai Embassy in Canberra about your concerns for these persecuted minority groups, calling Thailand to account to international standards of treating vulnerable displaced persons: 

The Royal Thai Embassy

111 Empire Circuit Yarralumla ACT 2600 Australia

Or email them at: thaican@mfa.go.th 

[1] The refugees fled into a nearby cave during this time, so there were only a few casualties.

[2]Under the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008, the Defence Services  is responsible for safeguarding the non-disintegration of the Union, the non-disintegration of National solidarity and the perpetuation of sovereignty as well as fo safeguarding the Constitution as laid out in Sections 20(e) and (f): https://www.scribd.com/document/7694880/Myanmar-Constitution-2008-English-version

[3] Please also see reports from the news network Mizzima in a recent August 19th Article.

[4] My source on the ground in Myanmar who runs a humanitarian aid organisation called Free Burma Rangers. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) mission is to provide hope, help and love to internally displaced people inside Burma, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Using a network of indigenous field teams, FBR reports on human rights abuses, casualties and the humanitarian needs of people who are under the oppression of the Burma Army. FBR provides medical, spiritual and educational resources for IDP communities as they struggle to survive Burmese military attacks. For more information, please visit www.freeburmarangers.org

[5] My source on the ground in Myanmar who runs a humanitarian aid organisation called Free Burma Rangers.

[6] Number of Clashes: 33; Number of Wounded: 6+; Number of Dead: 11; Number of Reported; Missing/Arrested: 9; Number of Airstrikes: 6; Number of Mortar and Artillery Strikes: 11; Number of Landmine-related Incidents:  5 - My source on the ground in Myanmar who runs a humanitarian aid organisation called Free Burma Rangers.

[7] Due to the international principle of non-refoulement.

[8] Images of the camp can be found here: http://www.bangkokimages.com/Articles/Featured-Destinations/entryid/253/Mae-La-Refugee-Camp-Thailand.aspx

[9] Radio Free Asia Report on Traffickers Targeting Refugee Camps, September 2011, You tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2OAOXNFaiI

[10] As Reported by Radio Free Asia and Human Rights Watch.

[11] Refugees in Thailand cannot work, are not given access to education, health services, ID Cards, or any other Thai government services.

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