Consul General’s Corner: Off-road adventure
May 2, 2011
One of the fun parts of my job as Consul General is the responsibility to travel throughout our consular district, stretching from Chiang Rai to Pichit and from Nan to Mae Hong Son. Last week, this meant I accompanied colleagues from the U.S. Embassy’s Refugee and Migration Affairs office on a tour of refugee camps in Mae Hong Son province.
Unlike our visit to the Mae La camp in Tak Province, which we accessed via a paved road from Mae Sot town, we needed a four-wheel drive vehicle to access the two camps in Mae Hong Son. Baan Mai Nai Soi, also known is “Site One,” is a Karenni camp located 40 minutes outside of Mae Hong Son city off dirt and gravel roads. The entrance to the camp abuts a hill tribe village and could be mistaken for another tourist site, save for the guard house. Even Camp Commander Wachira Chotirosseranee needed to sign the camp log as we entered. He explained that the log book helped Thai authorities ensure no one got lost on the long drive in and out of the camp, which is accessed via a dirt track hugging the side of a hill.
On the drive in, we passed refugee children riding bikes or walking along the road. The camp itself was an architectural feat, with huts perched above one another on the side of the hill for the 14,000 residents. While everything looked precarious, the huts were built on sturdy stilts. As in other Thai refugee camps, the inhabitants had built the huts themselves from bamboo, rattan walls and teak-tree leaves. The impermanent structures could last up to six years before being rebuilt, though the roofs needed replacing every two years or so. When I asked why more solid building materials were not used, a representative from the International Rescue Committee told me that the camps by definition were temporary. The camps needed a special permit from Thai authorities to bring cement or corrugated metal into the perimeter for constructing latrines or the health clinic.
We met with the camp committee to discuss their projects and concerns. As in Mae La, the number one concern was forced repatriation to Burma, though Thai authorities have assured us that no such repatriation would occur unless it was safe to do so. When we asked whether the committee tracked former refugees who had been resettled in the United States through our program, Commander Wachira said he heard from many via Facebook, asking after family members still in the camp. He told us they initially complained about the adjustment process but were now settling well. Attending a cultural orientation program from the shy Karenni scheduled for resettlement, I thought I knew why.
The next day, we ventured to Site Two, a picturesque camp for 3,000 Karen-speaking refugees located on royal land deep inside a national park. The dirt road wound its way through a bamboo forest with hairpin turns past a few Thai villages. I looked apprehensively out the passenger door as the mud fell away down steep slopes, wondering why no one told me how scary the drive would be! For the International Rescue Committee (IRC) staff visiting every week, it was a routine journey. The final approach required us to drive across the river through the camp, which the refugees crossed over bridges they made themselves. Our IRC host told us this was the end of “bridge season,” meaning the suspension bridges were falling apart and needed to be rebuilt before the rainy season. Refugees now used the lower bridges they’d built for the dry season, which would soon be swept away.
While Site Two was much more isolated and remove than Site One, the inhabitants seemed to have more purpose. Maybe this was due to the small vegetable plots they were allowed to tend, or perhaps it was because of the need to rebuild the bridges to make the camp livable. The much smaller population made it easier for the refugees to feel a sense of community, and they seemed to get along well. When we met with the Karenni National Women’s Organization (comprised mainly of Karen speakers from Karenni State), they echoed Site One concerns about repatriation but were most worried about food, since Thai-Burma Border Consortium rations had decreased. When we asked them how they came to the camp – considering how remote it was – the organization leader told us it was too painful to discuss, even for those who had lived here nearly two decades. While it’s hard for us to appreciate all they’ve been through, I took comfort in seeing the U.S. government programs supporting the refugees.
These include a new processing center in Khun Yuam, where officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will interview refugees slated to travel to the U.S. from mid-May. The U.S. has already resettled approximately 10,000 from Mae Hong Son camps since the program started. In an April 27 meeting with Governor Kamthorn Thawornsatit, we reiterated the U.S. commitment to continuing our resettlement programs and support.
Despite the harrowing drive to the camp, the trip left me with a good feeling. We are making a difference every day.