The nine camps are located in four western provinces along the border with Burma/Myanmar. These are, from north to south:
Mae Hong Son Province (4 camps): Ban Nai Soi, Ban Mae Surin, Mae Ra Ma Luang, Mae La Oon
Tak Province (3): Mae La, Umpiem Mai, Nu Po
Kanchanaburi Province (1): Ban Don Yang
Ratchaburi Province (1): Tham Hin
The camps vary greatly in size, from the largest, Mae La, with around 32,500 inhabitants, to Ban Mae Surin, with around 2,100 people. In December 2018, the total number receiving food and cooking fuel support in the camps was more than 85,000 persons.
Running the Camps
It takes thousands of people to ensure the efficient running of refugee camps that are in many ways like small towns and villages.
Like any community, the camps thrum with the normal activities of social life—there are schools, clinics, community centres and places of worship, along with shops, sports facilities and community gardens.
Food rations, shelter, water and sanitation have to be organised and maintained. Social services for vulnerable community members are important in an environment where many residents have suffered trauma in the past or who struggle with the constraints of camp life.
Since 1984, the sites have largely been managed by camp committees and civil society organisations within the refugee communities.
A wide variety of organisations contribute to the administration and running of the camps. These include:
The Royal Thai Government (RTG) administers the refugee camps. The Ministry of the Interior (MOI) implements refugee policy set by the National Security Council (NSC) and controls the day-to-day running of the camps through provincial and district authorities, in collaboration with refugee and camp committees. Other government agencies, including the Royal Thai Army Paramilitary Rangers and the Border Patrol Police assist in providing security.
The Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) and the Karenni Refugee Committee (KnRC) are the peak representatives of the refugees living in the camps. They oversee all activities conducted by and under the camp committees, coordinate assistance provided by NGOs, and liaise with the Royal Thai Government, the UN Refugee Agency, security personnel, visitors to the camps and others.
Community Elders Authority Boards
Respect for the elderly is traditional among refugee communities and this is reflected in the CEABs which provide guidance to refugee and camp committees and help organise and oversee refugee and camp committee elections. The central Karen and Karenni CEABs are based in Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son respectively, with local boards in each camp comprised of residents. Tee Ya Bu is an active CEAB member in Tham Hin camp.
Camp Committees are the refugee-led administrative and management bodies of the camps. The committees shoulder the extensive work of coordinating the day-to-day running of a camp and its services, in collaboration with local Ministry of the Interior officials, and they provide the main link between the camp population and non-government organisations, the UN Refugee Agency and local Thai authorities.
The peak committees are made up of elected representatives from within the camp population, with sub-committees operating at the central, zone (if applicable) and section level. Elections occur every three years. Minor variations exist between camps, but all elections follow a democratic methodology and include provision for a minimum quota of five females on each committee.
The KWO traces its origins to 1949 and has a membership of around 49,000 women in the camps and Karen/Kayin State. Among its many activities in the Thai sites are included the support of livelihood, education, health and social welfare initiatives. The KnWO was founded by Karenni/Kayah women who fled to Thailand in 1993. It advocates for women’s rights, protection and empowerment in Ban Mai Nai Soi and Ban Mae Surin camps. It also has offices in Loikaw in Kayah state.
Muslim Women’s Associations in Mae La and Umpiem Mai camps promote livelihood initiatives and provide social services to women from the Islamic community.
Youth groups in the camps include the largest, the Karen Youth Organisation (KYO) which is active in six camps and promotes its activities on its Facebook page. There is a smaller youth group in Ban Nai Soi, the mainly Karenni/Kayah camp and in Umpiem Mai camp, the Muslim Youth Association (MYO) organises various activities for young people in the camp. For updates on the KYO, see https://www.facebook.com/karenyouthorganization.kyo/
Other Community-Based Organisations
A great variety of other community-based organisations are also active in the camps. Many, such as the Karenni Students Union and the Karen Handicapped Welfare Association were formed by members of the communities. Others, including sexual and gender-based violence community peace teams and child protection committees, were established by non-government organisations (NGOs) and other external service providers.
Around 15 international and local NGOs are active in the camps, working in the fields of protection, health, education, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, shelter, livelihoods and camp management. They coordinate activities and share information under the auspices of the Committee to Coordinate Services for Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT).
In Photos: Scenes from the Camps
Images of life in the camps, taken by Suthep Kritsanavarin for TBC.