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Karen Refugees Wary of Return to Myanmar as Despair Rises in Camps

On the Thai-Myanmar border, refugees who fled one of the world’s longest civil wars live in limbo, with alarmingly high suicide rates. As their options for resettlement narrow, some are beginning to return to Myanmar and the challenges of reintegration.

Written by Libby Hogan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A girl sits outside her room in Mae La Oon refugee camp, which she shares with two other women who fled the Karen civil war.Libby Hogan

MAE LA OON CAMP, Thailand – For an hour every night, a generator provides electricity to the refugee camp of Mae La Oon, home to some 10,000 refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border. Nay Kaw Htoo, a 21-year-old computer teacher, makes the most of the time to charge his phone and play music – particularly the songs of his hero, Bruno Mars. He’s got big dreams for when he leaves the refugee camp: He hopes to be a computer technician or a coder.

An estimated 100,000 refugees from eastern Myanmar have fled a 60-year civil war in Kayin State between the Burmese military and armed ethnic groups – one of the longest civil wars in the world. Many of them live in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Nay Kaw Htoo has been waiting three years to be resettled in another country. But he has few available options. He arrived in Thailand after the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCRstopped registering most refugees in the camps for resettlement at the start of 2014.

While Nay Kaw Htoo clings to his dream of resettling to the United States, others in the camps find the rising feeling of hopelessness overwhelming. In another camp, Mae La, the largest on the border, 28 refugees have died by suicide and a further 66 have attempted it in the past two years according to a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

This is three times the global average suicide rate, says Dana Graber Ladek, head of mission for IOM Thailand.

One couple, described as being deeply in love by their family, ended their lives together by drinking herbicide in November 2015. “It was really devastating,” says perinatal mental health researcher Dr. Gracia Fellmeth, who saw one of the couple – an 18-year-old pregnant woman – two days before she killed herself at an antenatal clinic.

In two years of research in the camp, Fellmeth, a DPhil student at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, found that the prevalence of mental disorders such as depression increased in women just before and after they gave birth. She says early recognition of mental disorders is key to helping prevent suicides, as well as age- and gender-specific support groups.

Another Mae La counselor, who asked to remain anonymous on account of not being authorized to speak to the media, said there is a severe shortage of mental health services inside the camps – notably, a lack of trained counselors. A strong taboo surrounds suicide or speaking about feelings of depression in the culture of the ethnic Karen, who are the majority in the camps.

Many women told Fellmeth they have high levels of anxiety about their future. Some are worried they will be pressured to return to Kayin State, but say they can’t go back to Myanmar because of the trauma of the war; others have no land or family to return to.

In Limbo on the Border

Parts of Mae La Oon look like a village, with sturdy houses made from bamboo and palm leaves. Young people mill around on a piece of cleared land, watching people hit a rattan ball back and forth over a volleyball net without using their hands: The game, “chinlone,” is also considered an art form.

Refugees are not allowed to work in Thailand, and some rarely leave the isolated border area. “Thai authorities could arrest me and throw me in prison if I was caught working illegally,” says Kaw Kay Paw, as she washes rice to cook her nightly meal. Born in Mae La Oon, she has never experienced a world outside of the camp’s fences in her 20 years.

Saw Ku Deh, 24, says that what frustrates young people most is that “every day is the same.” There is nothing to occupy their minds after they finish school at the volunteer classrooms sent up by the refugees themselves inside the camps.

As the resettlement program winds down, small numbers of refugees are choosing to return to Myanmar. In October last year, 71 refugees voluntarily returned home in the first official UNHCR-assisted repatriation.

But despite relative peace in Kayin State after armed groups signed the National Cease-Fire Agreement in 2005, the number of returnees remains small. The peace is still fragile, says Saw Way Lay from Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG). “Refugee return is linked to demilitarization, and the Burmese military troops and camps still remain on [the] Karen land of refugees,” he says. The land is also littered with land mines – laid randomly during the conflict by both the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups.

KHRG, which is tracking the experiences of the returnees in Myanmar, says some have faced challenges reintegrating.

“It is good for us to come back,” a 25-year-old referred to as “Saw B” told KHRG upon returning to Kyain Seikgyi township in Myanmar with his wife, and receiving a Myanmar citizenship identity card after living without documents in Noh Poe refugee camp. “A person has the right to be a citizen,” he told the group in January.

But the assistance he received from UNHCR was stretched when he couldn’t find work, he said. “Some original villagers, they want to treat us differently. It’s like they do not want to inform us and accept us for available jobs,” he said.

Despite receiving land and other assistance, several returnees told the group they lack access to water, schools or medical clinics. Many refugees will not be able to return until there are more opportunities for work and better services, says KHRG’s Saw Way Lay. Some refugees say they will never go back – the memories of the war still run too deep.

Hsa Moo, from Karen Environmental Social Action Network, warns that conditions are not sufficient for mass return of refugees in many Kayin villages. She fears that recent aid cuts in the camp are building pressure for refugees to go back to Kayin State before they are ready.

To find support, a list of international suicide prevention hotlines can be found here.

This story has been updated to correct Saw Way Lay’s gender.

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