Thai-Burma border 2010

Refugees International Japan visits refugee communities around the world on a regular basis so that we can see at first hand the kind of impact your donations have. We are used to hearing bad news from countries affected by war. However, the people we meet, who are doing their best for their families and their communities, always impress our teams. Their resilience is amazing. The programs we fund help them to rebuild their lives and prepare for the return home.

December 2010
The armed conflict in Burma between the military junta, political opponents, and ethnic groups has been ongoing for over half a century, resulting in the displacement of over 3.5 million Burmese. Refugee International Japan (RIJ) provides funding support to a number of community organisations which offer hope and practical assistance to the 150,000 Burmese residing in camps on the Thai-Burma border  

In December 2010, two volunteers from RIJ, Pip Symington and Sarah Matsushita, visited Mae La Mo and Mae La Oon on the Thai-Burma border, to see the results of projects funded by RIJ and to gain a first-hand understanding of the present needs of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Refugee Situation
The refugees in Mae La Ro and Mae La Oon are largely Burmese nationals from Karen state who have fled attacks by the military. Hundreds and thousands of other Burmese who do not qualify for refugee status despite having experienced persecution and conflict live as illegal migrants in Thailand without assistance and under the constant threat of deportation.

Although the refugee camps provide protection from the brunt of conflict, they present a new set of challenges. Education is minimal; healthcare limited; there is little or no employment for the men, or chances for female empowerment. As a result, many refugees in these camps have seized the opportunity for third country resettlement by a scheme led by the Thai government. Although this scheme offers hope and freedom to some refugees, the selective approach of choosing applicants removes a disproportionate number of the most skilled, educated, and experienced leaders from the local community, greatly affecting those that remain.

Projects Visited
Two local organisations supported by RIJ are striving to help improve the wellbeing of refugee communities on the Thai-Burma border.

DARE Network
Drug and alcohol addiction is a common problem in refugee communities as people grieve past losses and despair about the future. DARE works with displaced people from Burma to provide culturally appropriate responses to substance abuse. During the visit, our volunteers met a number of Karen
refugees who shared with them their personal experiences of addiction, and who have since been empowered to take on leadership roles as DARE managers or addiction workers in the camps.

DARE’s youth program has also had a visible impact on refugee communities. Our volunteers met girls and boys in their teens who help organise Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and who talk to their peers about the dangers of drinking and drugs.

Karen Women Organisation
Based on the premise that ‘when women benefit, the whole community benefits’, KWO promotes women’s participation in community decision-making and political processes, while providing education and training to build their skills and confidence.

One of the longest running projects of KWO is the provision of baby kits to new mothers. Given that refugees are often confined in closed camps with few sources of income, they often struggle to meet the additional costs of having a baby. These kits provide basic material support to families and improve the hygiene and health of new born babies.

Words from our Volunteers (Pip Symington and Sarah Matsushita)

Value of RIJ funding:
Meeting the people who directly benefit from the money and efforts of RIJ had a powerful impact on out view of RIJ’s work. The strong impact RIJ funding has on refugees and IDPs was even more tangible in person. It was also gratifying to hear how people were able to make significant changes in their lives with support form us, an organisation in another country far away.”

Stories from the border
We were very impressed with one man in particular. This father of 8 children was known to have a drinking problem, yet was encouraged by his family and community members to attend DARE’s first training for addiction workers. After 10 years, he not only leads addiction workers, but his leadership qualities extend outside the program and throughout the camp. Sadly he is relocating to the US as part of the resettlement program. He admitted that it would be hard to give up work that he loves and people who need him in the camp, but he wanted to give his children better opportunities.”

We met another man, La Puoy, who had joined the Karen army after his family was viciously attacked by the military and his home destroyed. He later lost a leg in a land mine explosion and followed the outflow of refugees, starting to drink in order to forget the past. Only when his wife and children began to suffer the effects, with physical abuse, lack of food, and disease, did he finally turn for help. Now recovering and providing assistance to others in similar situations, La Puoy said that DARE helped him overcome addiction which he could not have done alone.”

We heard one story from KWO about how Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) were banned by a large NGO in one of the camps, because foreign medical professionals felt they presented a risk to mothers and children, not having academic training. Yet Karen refugees trusted and felt more comfortable with TBAs. TBAs also provided pre and post natal care, while allowing expectant mothers to stay close to their families rather than be forced to move to the medical facility. KWO worked for some time to explain to the foreign professionals the many benefits of TBAs, and now provides special kits for both TBAs and new moms.”