Authors: Tom Bamforth
Children ran through the streets, men played volleyball on the central
, and the sounds of music, laughter and learning drifted from the schools on the humid afternoon air. The cool houses with deep eaves and thatched roofs were a far cry from the squalid settlements where I had worked with other refugees fleeing war and natural disaster. In Pakistan families froze in the rain and mud of the Himalayan winter, living for months beside open sewers and in ancient canvas tents. In Sudan vast temporary cities grew in the desert. They were violent microcosms of conflict, unemployment and persecution. Women risked attack in the daily search for water and firewood. I had braced myself before arriving at the Mae Hong Son refugee camp, on the Thai–Burma border, but I found myself in a pleasant village of ethnic Karennyi refugees.
Resplendent in a pink shirt and fresh from a recent scholarship to Oxford, the Thai camp commander dazzled with his enamelled self-confidence, his progressive views and his conviction that he was soaring to the top. Here were schools and resources, committed NGOs. The Commander expressed his concern for the plight of the refugees, and declared his willingness to bend the strict application of Thai law in order to allow the people in the camp the chance to lead lives that were as ordinary as possible. His body language acted out his words of friendship and unity—a supportive hand on the shoulder, a touch of the arm, a courteous incline of the head.
But this was more like 19th-century Russia than the modern day: a liberal feudal—almost falsely at ease—presented his progressive ‘new model’ village. For him, this was a harmonious, almost Tolstoyan, experiment where 16,000 people would lead the ordinary lives that had been denied them by their own state, under the watchful beneficent patriarch of Thailand. There was even a decent enough clinic, staffed and equipped, and roosters meandered in and out of the maternity ward. Once the women in the community knew I was coming, endless streams of woven shawls and fabrics were produced for sale. The air of the place appeared to be one of functionality, normality, even jollity.
The reality of refugee life in Thailand, however, takes place below the choreographed surface of such interactions. Subtle hints of a different world would occasionally emerge through the cloud of bonhomie and busy, but ultimately purposeless, activity.
Men in uniform accompanied me everywhere and took an endless series of photos—some of which found their way onto the Commander’s Facebook page. And when the Commander placed an empathetic and comradely arm around the refugees to whom I spoke, they recoiled perceptibly. Even if he was one of the more liberal bureaucrats, with populist sympathies, he was still a representative of a state that had not signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention. It is also a state that has created an elaborate system of variegated citizenship and residency rights that excludes as many as three million people (refugees and hill tribes) from its formal legal protection, keeping them in a condition of economic and social vulnerability. To benefit from this influx of stateless people, the Thai government had established major manufacturing centres along the border where labour is cheap and desperate and rights are few. Human traffickers lurk near here, promising better futures for the rural poor, who instead are led into a sexual and industrial slavery that would be unimaginable were it not real.
The impression of ordinary village life was similarly misleading—refugees could not legally leave the camp, could not work or gain access to the upper levels of the Thai education system. While rules were periodically bent, the refugees were entirely reliant on the ongoing delivery of food and supplies by aid agencies and had lived in this condition of compound, inter-generational dependency for twenty-five years. With the financial crisis, aid budgets had been cut and already food supplies had been reduced. Discussions about sustainability and potential camp closure had begun.
The Karennyi refugees could not return home while the Burmese state continued its persecution of ethnic minorities. Mistaking the friendliness of the camp commander for genuine openness, I asked about the political affiliations of the refugees. Did they have contact with opposition groups in exile in Thailand? Under what conditions would they return to Burma? But silence descended on the group when I asked the commander to discuss anything beyond the realities of daily life in the camp and the perennial wait for return or resettlement. The collapse of minority opposition to the Burmese state in the mid-nineties and regular military action since then had left behind a deeply damaged homeland under military occupation. Those who remained faced the brutalising force of an occupying regime: forced labour, land confiscation, involuntary relocation, arbitrary (in)justice including detainment and execution, sexual violence and environmental degradation left by government-controlled mining and forestry interests. Resettlement of the entire community had been offered by Scandinavian, Australian and US governments, but few—especially the older refugees—were willing to resettle and risk losing their identity, their culture and the possibility, however remote, of going home. What, after a life of farming in the Burmese hills, would such people do in freezing Minnesota, where most were granted resettlement? Effectively, the majority were stuck in an intergenerational limbo that would not end until the fall of the current Burmese regime or the Thai government lost its patience.
While some of the refugees joined opposition militias and tried to fight on, others were resigned, their slowly fading hope forming corrosive lines across their faces. Some, like a young schoolteacher, tried to impart language and computer skills to those seeking a future overseas. A local self-help group, the Karennyi National Women’s Organisation, combined fiery political activism with household industry to generate at least some income. It was the women who carried on, kept things together and were politically active; their high seriousness and dedication were astounding. They were the economic foundation of the refugee community’s survival, starting cottage industries and continuing traditional crafts, selling hand-woven clothes to the tourists who flocked to northern Thailand. When I met them at a fabric-making workshop outside the camp, I found that they were direct and politically assertive in the way that the men were not. They were proud members of the Karennyi National Women’s Organisation, dedicated both to improving the economic and social conditions of refugee Karennyi women as well as the broader political goal of returning home to a fully democratic Burma.
A malaise seemed to have descended over the men. Some younger ones had returned to the jungles to fight with Karennyi militia against government occupation of their ethnic homelands. They had quickly realised, however, the futility of taking on the well-supplied Burmese army and had become disillusioned by the fractured politics of the hill-tribe opposition movements, which had been militarily defeated more than fifteen years before. So not for these refugees the exuberance and hugs of the camp commander. Theirs was a limbo for which a workable solution would not be found within their lifetimes.
Those who were able to leave did so with nothing, their future sealed in an envelope containing a chest X-ray and bearing the random letters that would shape the rest of their lives—an identification number and the formula: MHS/IOM/MIN (Mae Hong Song Camp–International Organisation for Migration–Minnesota). For the remaining three million who had fled war and persecution across the border, not even this was an option.
Today, there are 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day (350 million of whom are children). Globally, there are approximately 42 million refugees, as well as 27 million internally displaced people who can no longer live in their homes but remain within their own countries. Humanitarian work alone cannot provide safe lives and livelihoods for people affected by poverty, conflict, drought, famine and war—and neither, it would appear, can our national and international political institutions that are so narrowly established to promote their own, often bizarre, assessments of monetary and military self-interest. The world is consequently in dire need of humanitarians—the overwhelming majority of whom are not ‘aid workers’ as such but the immediate friends, family, colleagues and social networks of people affected by disasters and conflict.
Still more important, however, is the reclamation of political ground by global citizens who perhaps one day can take human rights back from lawyers with their accountancy of rules, take livelihoods away from the tinkering of economists, and restore power to parliaments rather than generals, corporations and the military-industrial complex. Humanitarianism is perhaps a beginning, even an idea. In the words of one aid worker: it is ‘an attempt to bring a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that should not exist’. Not enough, clearly, but at least it is a start and an attempt to engage with the world’s events with the human virtues of compassion and consideration rather than the calculus of mercantile self-interest that is the cause of so much of today’s inequality.
But I had not started out intending to work in the humanitarian world. For most, despite the increasing number of courses and certificates for would-be aid workers, the path to this kind of work is as tangential as the places where disasters and conflicts occur. It was an earthquake in Pakistan while I was on holiday exploring the mountains and monuments of the country’s north that propelled me suddenly and unexpectedly into the maelstrom of my first response.