Last week a fire broke out in Umpiem refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, destroying at least 1,000 homes and leaving about a third of the 15,000 camp residents homeless. Two children were killed in the blaze.
I visited Umpiem camp last month to give a lecture at Kaw Lah Junior College, a two-year public health training program for refugees that is run by the Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity (KRCEE).
The camp covered half of a valley, stretching up steep hillsides. People lived in crowded bamboo houses with thatched roofs. Though the camp has been there for more than ten years, authorities deemed it “temporary” and no permanent structures are permitted.
Refugees need permission to leave the camp, and although some are able to work as day laborers in fields outside the camp, most have difficulty finding work.
Life in the camp is precarious. The crowded conditions are conducive to disease transmission, and health NGOs are constantly working to prevent outbreaks. Food rations are cut when funding is not available, and there is very little space for people to grow their own food.
The Thai-Burma Border Commission estimates that there are 160,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. They fled fighting and persecution in Burma, and although some positive changes have happened in Burma, many are reluctant to return.
There is pressure from the Burmese government to close the refugee camps as they are seen as a reminder that all is not well in Burma. Last week’s fire is a reminder of how vulnerable the refugees are. Their rights should not be overlooked in the rush to close the camps and improve Burma’s image.