Thailand: Caring for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot
30 August 2013|Catherine Marshall
Mae Sot, 30 August 2013 – It was his experience as part of an ethnic minority in Thailand that prompted JRS Asia Pacific staff member Sanan to devote his life to helping Burmese refugees and migrants who have fled their homeland and come to settle across the border in the town of Mae Sot. As a member of the Thai-Karen group, Sanan knows what it’s like to be marginalised: the equal rights he shares with his compatriots haven’t always been fully respected in practice, he says.
“Maybe as a Thai person it seems like I have equal rights, but in a practical way, [I don’t]. We have a different culture, a different way of life. That is why I want to help the refugees and migrants to be accepted by the majority, the powerful groups.”
Sanan joined JRS in Mae Sot over seven years ago; before that he worked in the town’s refugee camps with the Dutch NGO ZOA (Zuidoost-Azië). Employed as a caseworker with JRS at the time (and now the Project Assistant), Sanan discovered that two-thirds of Burmese refugees and migrants were living undocumented lives outside of the regulated refugee camps; many of them had no livelihood, and so JRS started providing emergency financial assistance as well as food supplies and blankets.
Today, JRS continues to focus on these ‘out of camp’ refugees, many of whom work in factories in Thailand and have little or no support; although NGOs are prolific in Mae Sot, most of them work inside Thailand’s nine refugee camps, which impose strict restrictions on their inhabitants: officially, refugees cannot leave the camps or work outside of them, and there are limited jobs and livelihood opportunities inside the camps. In coming to these people’s aid, JRS partners with a variety of CBOs – community groups such as the Overseas Irrawaddy Association (OIA) – which represent various ethnic Burmese communities and are supported by organisations like JRS as well as private donors.
JRS runs a livelihood project which has assisted families to set up small businesses such as grocery shops and food vending services. Candidates are carefully selected according to vulnerability criteria related to family composition, sources of income, debt, and disability.
“They can support themselves and also support the family with this kind of activity,” Sanan says. JRS has supported community organisations in the provision of training for migrants and refugees in Thai language and culture, labour rights, trafficking, psycho-social development and health, and vocational training in which migrants are given the opportunity to improve their skills and thus find employment more easily.
It’s fulfilling work in which Sanan has been able to both empathise and bear some of the burden experienced by new arrivals in Thailand.
“Maybe the way I’m working is not only for myself, but is helpful and meaningful for the refugee. I prefer to work to solve this problem of the suffering of these innocent people,” he says.
To support JRS and Jesuit Mission’s projects in Thailand go to www.jesuitmission.org.au. For more on JRS’ work in the Asia Pacific go to www.jrsap.org
By Catherine Marshall
This article was first published by Province Express, a newsletter of the Australian Jesuits, on 13 August 2013: www.express.org.au/