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Violence, Impunity, Disease: Challenges of Karen refugees in Mae Sot

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Karen refugees face a wide range of challenges and issues in Mae Sot, a border town of Thailand. With the government of Thailand over whelmed with refugees, the international standards for dealing with stateless people are being ignored.

There are over 100,000 Karen people, originally from Burma, living in Thailand. They have flooded the border to escape horrible human rights violations committed against them by the State Peace and Development Council of Burma (SPDC). In a recent publication, the Karen Womens Organisation has documented over 4000 cases of human rights abuses at the hands of the SPDC.1 In 2004 there was an informal ceasefire in the Karen State of Burma, yet attacks persist and SPDC troops continue to build up in the area. With the Karen state directly across the border from Mae Sot, Thailand, the town acts as a place of refuge for those escaping violence and terror in Burma.

“Violence makes me cry”2

Many of the residents in the Mae Sot area have escaped extremely horrific situations in Burma; memories of these experiences resonate with them as they try to re-start their lives in a new country. Although Mae Sot offers a seemingly safer environment than Burma, the emotional scars of war remain. The physical scars are evident as well, both from war and the lack of an accessible healthcare system for them in Burma. The Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot is known by all residents as it offers free health care to anyone. The clinic also provides prosthetics, as many clients are land mine survivors. The clinic began in 1988 and last year saw over 80,000 people come through its doors.

“We are Karen; we have nothing so we fight”3

According to one resident, the majority of those in Mae Sot are Karen people. The Mae La refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the area, is home to over 50,000 people, mostly Karen. Inside the refugee camp residents struggle to cope. The camp clinic, responsible for serving residents’ needs, is an open air space with only a few private rooms for child-delivery and basic operations. The most frequent health concerns are malnutrition and malaria, a clear sign that basic needs of the people are not being met. The clinic depends on volunteer doctors, who must leave the camp at night due to restrictions, leaving residents without a doctor.

Inside the camp there are few options for employment. The Karen Womens Organisation (KWO) provides a number of services including safe houses, skills training, and maternal care.4 The KWO’s small shops in the refugee camp and in Mae Sot sell Karen weavings that fund their programs. Residents in the camp are technically not allowed to leave, although many do, seeking work illegally in the area. Leaving the camp puts residents at risk of deportation, putting them at the mercy of the local law enforcement, including the Thai military.

“The police would punch me in the stomach”5

With no citizenship or registration papers, residents of Mae Sot from Burma have to carefully negotiate with local law enforcement. Thai officials are fully aware that most of the residents of Mae Sot are unregistered and living and working illegally in the town. There are many reports from local citizens of law enforcement abusing their power, torturing and jailing local residents. For them, the greatest fear is that they will be sent back into the hands of Burmese government authorities. It is estimated that almost half of the migrant workers in Mae Sot do not have work permits. This makes them even more vulnerable to police intimidation and workplace exploitation. Workers in Mae Sot can pay traffickers around 10,000 baht (around 300 USD) to work illegally in the dangerous construction sites of Bangkok.

Thailand has taken no action on the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, nor the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Thailand must be accountable for its treatment of stateless peoples within its borders. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is supposed to guarantee freedom of movement within states, among other basic rights of which many of the residents of Mae Sot are deprived, these rights are not being realised.

The Ethnic Minorities in Southeast Asia programme of FORUM-ASIA is currently planning training workshops at the request of the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot on minority rights, rights-based approach to development and millennium development goals.

State of Terror: The ongoing rape, murder, torture and forced labour suffered by women living under the Burmese Military Regime in Karen State, The Karen Womens Organisation, 2007.

Personal conversation with resident of Mae Sot, former member of the Shan State army, 14 July 2000

Comment from a Karen man in the Mae La Refugee camp watching a fighting match between two boys in the camp. Observers bet on the winners, 27 May 2007


Personal conversation with resident of Mae Sot describing the many run-ins with local police, 14 July 2007.