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Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, a difficult place to be a child

Rehabilitation
Thailand

Handicap International is launching Growing Together, a project to give every child in the Thai refugee camps the right and the opportunity to be a child. Because being a child in a context of poverty and stress doesn’t come easy…

In the Thai camps, drinking water is collected from wells.

In the Thai camps, drinking water is collected from wells. | © W. Huyghe / Handicap International

Since 1984, Thailand has provided refuge to people fleeing violence in Myanmar, and more recently to economic migrants. The population in the Thai refugee camps, located along the Myanmar-Thailand border, is now estimated at 111,000 people. Some people were born in the camps and have never set foot outside.

Most of the refugees in the nine camps are Karen people, an umbrella term that refers to a heterogeneous ethnic group without a shared language, culture or religion. Since the 1940s, ongoing violent conflicts between Karen separatists and the Burmese army have forced many families to move. Around 400,000 Karen people are homeless.

The living conditions in the camps are extremely poor. Drinking water is collected from wells and streams, and in the past, cases of cholera and malaria have occurred. Children suffer from chronic malnutrition and respiratory infections. 

Isolated or overcrowded

Most of the camps are isolated in the mountains and therefore hard to access. There’s no electricity grid and some camps have no phone signal. Health care and education opportunities are extremely limited. In the rainy season, flash floods can cause damage to the infrastructure and even cause casualties.

Other camps, such us Mae La Camp, the largest refugee camp with more than 40,000 refugees, are only an hour’s drive away from Mae Sot, the nearest town. More health service providers and schools are present, but the camps are overcrowded. The lack of space between the temporary houses, composed of bamboo and wood, has been the cause of many fires in the camp.

Depression and suicides

The life of the refugees is quite restricted because they usually cannot go out, and the Thai police might arrest them if they do. So if adults want to earn some money, they have to do it secretly outside the camps, without getting caught. Most of the refugees don’t take that risk and stay inside the camp. They rely heavily on the weekly food distributions and the humanitarian assistance provided by international NGOs and community-based organisations, which makes them feel dependant and bored.

Depression and alcohol addiction are very common amongst adult refugees, which puts their children at risk of neglect and malnutrition. No fewer than half of the adults suffer from mental health issues, which recently has lead to a rising number of suicides.

This increase can partially be explained by rumours that refugees will have to return to Myanmar.  As the peace process continues, both the Myanmar and the Thailand government, as well as the UNHCR encourage voluntary repatriation. But Karen refugees fear that the situation in their home country is not yet safe. Moreover, the idea of a ‘home country’ is for many a non-existent concept, since they were born in the camps. They have never known another way of living than their life in the camps. It’s the only reality they know.

Refugee children, longing to be children

Almost half of the population of the Mae La camp is under 18.  Most children are born in the camp; they don’t have birth certificates and are stateless, which jeopardizes their future.

Besides difficult backgrounds, the poor living conditions, and an uncertain future, children lack the possibilities to play.

"The UN Convention on the Rights of the Children states that every child should have the right to play. Unfortunately, the right to play is often neglected", says Cheryl Shin-Hua Yeam, regional technical coordinator of the Growing Together project.

"In Mae La Camp, children have no place or opportunity to play. Yet, play is a really important tool for them to be able to work through some of their issues and to be a child."

"For children with disabilities, it is even more difficult. A lot of them are hidden away, because places in the camps are simply not accessible if you’re in a wheelchair or if you need a walking device to assist you."

"Our goal is to create spaces where children with and without disabilities, children of all kinds, can come together in a safe place, and play and learn together."

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