Iguacu Blog

What’s Life Like in Thailand’s Largest Burmese Refugee Camp?

Jan 21, 2016
What’s Life Like in Thailand’s Largest Burmese Refugee Camp?

After independence from Britain in 1948, many Burmese minority ethnic groups protested and rebelled against the formation of a unified Burmese state, largely in fear of losing their identity and autonomy. In response, the Burmese state started to attack minority groups. Under successive military juntas, Myanmar has suppressed ethnic minority groups and continued a policy of ‘Burmanization’ i.e. the promotion of a single religion (Buddhism), language (Burmese) and culture (Burman). Human rights violations against ethnic minorities, such as torture, physical and sexual violence, forced labour, murder and land confiscation are still widespread. Fleeing these persecutions, thousands have sought refuge in supposedly temporary camps.

I went to visit one of those camps along the Thai-Myanmar border and thought I would share this unique experience with you.


The camp is the largest refugee camp in Thailand with more than 40,000 refugees. It is mainly composed of ethnic Karen people (84%), the third largest ethnic group in Myanmar. They fled following attacks by government forces against the KNU (Karen National Union) and its armed wing the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Other ethnic groups in the camp are Burmese, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Chan.

Mae La Camp is governed by an elected Camp Committee that manages the affairs of the camp. The camp is supported by the UNHCR and a collaboration of NGOs called ‘The Border Consortium’. The Ministry of Interior of Thailand is responsible for the camp’s administration. However, Thailand is not a signatory to the international legal instruments on the protection of refugees and does not have a formal national asylum framework. This means Thailand is not obliged to treat refugees in accordance with internationally recognized standards of law and can forcibly return refugees to the countries from which they fled.


Weekly food rations are distributed by UNHCR and include essential items such as rice and oil. Rations are only provided to registered residents who are physically present at the time of distribution. One resident said that when he arrived at the camp ten years ago, the food was plentiful, but now it’s decreasing due to the camp’s increasing population.

Since the camp is supposed to be temporary, and despite many long-term residents, houses are required by law to be made from temporary materials. The walls are therefore made from bamboo or other wood and the roofs are composed of thatched leaves. Consequently, living conditions are poor and there have been many cases of fires in the camp.

Although in general there is an impressive degree of civil order in Mae La and the other camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, a recent report by the Karen Women’s Organization has revealed numerous cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women and notably, a failure to provide adequate justice for the victims. The report documented 289 cases of SGBV against women in Mae La and other refugee camps from 2011 to 2013, and concluded that the justice system in the camps provided an inadequate outcome for 80% of victims.

The most heart-rending sight in the camp is the care centre for veterans affected by the conflict in Karen State. Karen State has a huge landmine problem second only to Afghanistan. Many of the veterans at Mae La have lost their sight and limbs to landmines.


New life is everywhere. Almost half of the population of the camp is under 18. Most children born in the camp do not have birth certificates. Although the UNHCR once issued birth certificates for all the residents living in the camp, this has been discontinued as it was hugely expensive. Without a birth certificate, you cannot have a passport. This means it will be very difficult for such residents to be resettled in a different country.


Despite the many attempts at a ceasefire, repatriation looks unlikely. A ceasefire was signed in October 2015 between the Myanmar government and eight armed ethnic groups but several major armed groups did not participate. Therefore there is doubt about whether there will be a genuine and enduring peace in the foreseeable future. There is still fighting in many areas of Myanmar and persecution by the Burmese military continues.

In 2005, the Thai Government approved resettlement opportunities for camp residents. As of December 2013, nearly 27,000 people had left Mae La, mostly resettled in the USA. Others have moved to New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Finland and Norway. However, there remains a long waiting list for resettlement and limited spaces.

Written by Roopa Matthews

Photo Credits: Mikhail Esteves & Roopa Matthews

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