Refugee camp worker finds hope amid despair
Refugees living in camps along the Thai border face a difficult and uncertain future because of the changing political face of the region, according to a former aid worker.
Already rice rations have been cut in the camps and some Thai politicians are talking about forcibly repatriating the 120,000 refugees and some of the three million migrant workers back to Burma.
Also, food, water and other resources are not keeping pace with growing numbers of people in the camps.
Fhon Williams spent four years working in refugee camps and on landmine clearance programs along the Thai borders with Burma and Cambodia.
She says the opening up of Burma to foreigners means NGOs and aid agencies are putting more of their money and resources directly into Burma.
“This means that there is less for the people in the camps. Recently, the monthly rice allocation for adults was reduced from 13kg per person per to 12kg per person,” Fhon said.
The upheavals in Thai domestic politics have also put the refugee question on the agenda.
“You will find that most ordinary Thai people do not know about the camps – they’re totally unaware. It is not discussed in the media and no one talks about it,” Fhon said.
“The government’s perception seems to have been that ‘this is a temporary thing – you don’t have to worry about it’. But recently some politicians have been talking about sending the refugees home,” she said.
There are about 120,000 refugees in the camps but also three million migrant workers in Thailand.
“The majority of these workers are illegal – they do the work the Thai people won’t do like on construction sites, in seafood processing where they might start at 2am and in the agricultural sector. All of these jobs have low pay – below the minimum wage,” Fhon said.
“These people have no access to facilities or services because they have no legal status in Thailand.”
Fhon’s most recent job working for aid agencies in Thailand was helping children of migrant workers and refugees get some basic education.
Before that she worked in camps on the Thai-Burma border in a program combating domestic violence.
“My role was to train refugee staff to screen for gender-based violence. I worked with a team of eight people working to educate communities about the services available to survivors of domestic violence,” Fhon said.
“The program aimed to screen for domestic violence but also ran education and prevention programs.
“When we first started, all the studies said there was not much violence happening but after a year we realised it was much more of an issue because many cases were not reported.
“Even among the refugees who were staff members there were survivors – but they never wanted to talk about this. After a time we got them talking about it and devised a strategy to help them,” Fhon said.
She said the most memorable thing about working among refugees was their welcoming nature and friendliness.
“All of the people I worked with made me feel part of their community and they were all keen to listen and learn,” she said.
Fhon tells the story of one woman who used candlelight to study long into the night.
“There is no electricity in the camps so people cannot read or work at night. But when I came to work each morning I saw candle wax on some of the notebooks. One woman was staying up late to work using candles,” she said.
Fhon said that one of the biggest problems in the camps was the monotony of life with some residents having been effectively locked up for more than 20 years.
“Many people in the camps are almost institutionalised because of the length of time they have been there – I know some people who have been in the camps 26 years,” Fhon said.
“They can’t plan for the future, they don’t know what is going to happen and many of them have lost their skills.
“They don’t even want to talk about more than a week ahead. Many were farmers in Burma but in the camps they are lucky even to have just a small plot of land.
“Most people just sit at home doing nothing and waiting for food to be delivered to them. They get rice and they also get oil, a kind of fish paste and beans but the food available is nothing more than adequate.”
There are basic services in the camps; schools, clinics, water and toilets, Fhon says, but as the populations increase there is commensurate pressure on infrastructure and resources.
“The problem is that water and food is allocated on the basis of official numbers. But the Thai government is refusing to let the UN register any more refugees so the official numbers are much less than the actual populations of the camps,” she said.
The interminable nature of life in the camps is illustrated by the story Fhon tells about a woman she met.
“This lady and her daughter were separated when they fled Burma,” she said.
“They ended up in different camps and didn’t know if each other were alive. After ten years they made contact but even then they could only meet briefly because the government does not allow people out of the camps, except for medical emergencies.
“As far as I know they are still trying to get permission for the daughter to move to her mother’s camp,” Fhon said.
Fhon herself comes from a small village in the east of Thailand near the Cambodian border.
After high school she moved to Bangkok to go to university. She studied History and then a Master’s Degree in Human Rights Studies.
Until two years ago she lived in Bangkok. Now in Australia with her Melbourne-born husband, Fhon has completed a SLPET course with AMES and is studying Community Services Work at Victoria University.
After university she got work with a Norwegian aid agency involved in a landmines’ impact survey along the Thai-Cambodian border.
“When I first applied for the job I thought it was a company mining minerals – but it turned out to be a project related to landmines. I was surprised but not afraid because the processes are very safe,” Fhon said.
“It gave me a chance to travel a lot along the borders between Thailand and Cambodia and Thailand and Burma,” she said.
“We were surveying villages affected by landmines. My role was to translate the survey questions from Thai to English so it could be inputted into a database.
“We saw the results of landmine accidents and we heard a lot of stories from people who had suffered injuries from stepping on mines.
“It is very sad because stepping on a landmine and losing a limb can be just the start of a person’s problems,” she said.
“I remember one man lost a leg to a landmine. He was a hunter and a farmer so he couldn’t work and as a result his wife left him with two kids to look after.
“Eventually, he also lost his land when he couldn’t pay the bank. So, the incident was not just about his leg.
“He was only in his 30s so it was very hard for him. We did some fundraising to help him set up a business. I hope he is still going well,” Fhon said.