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Mae La Camp, Thailand

Mae La refugee camp, Thailand. [1]


There are nine refugee camps along western Thailand’s border with Burma. Several interviewees lived in the Mae La camp, one of the largest refugee camps, with a population of over 50,000. [2] Refugee camps are considered “temporary shelters” by the Thailand government and refugees, but some individuals spend their entire lives there. [3]

Those interviewed spent a minimum of seven years in a refugee camp. Sa Jan entered a refugee camp in Thailand with her family when she was two years old and lived there for eighteen years. [4]

Although these camps are thought of as places of refuge, there is still the threat of murder, enslavement, and destruction of property inside the camp from Burmese and Thai soldiers. [5]

The refugees are given food in the camp such as rice, oil, and salt, but no meat, and the rations are never enough. Hay Dar Yar said, “There is not always enough food. For example, once we get rice, we save it for our children. We feed them first.” [6]

Hay Dar Yar’s wife, Sa Jan, said she recently spoke to friends in the camp. Her friends are afraid to come to the United States because change is scary; however, they reported the food rations have lessened. [7] [8]

Mae La Refugee Camp

Children living in the Mae La refugee camp, Thailand. [9]

Despite the lack of resources, due to the camp’s confinement regulations, the refugees are not allowed to leave in order to augment their income or purchase goods. Out of desperation, some refugees still find a way to exit the camp, but if they are caught reentering, Thai soldiers will stop them and take their money, or worse, harm or kill them.

Sa Jan is proud to be here because in the camp she “couldn’t even get a bike, and now she can ride [in] a car.” On the other hand, many of the Burmese Muslims we interviewed still have family and friends in Burma and in Thailand refugee camps that they will never see again. Not everyone is allowed to immigrate to the United States. [10]


[1] Estevas, Mikhail. Mae La Refugee Camp. 22 March 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 28 May 2015.

[2] Challenger, David. “Karen refugees a ‘forgotten story.’” CNN. 23 June 2008. Accessed 28 May 2015.

[3] Bandow, Doug. Accessed 3 June 2015. Burma Enjoys an Uneasy Peace: Time to Close Thailand’s Refugee Camps? http://spectator.org/articles/61240/burma-enjoys-uneasy-peace-time-close-thailand%E2%80%99s-refugee-camps

[4] Sa Jan. Personal interview. 16 May 2015.

[5] “Refugee Camps.” Burma Link. 27 April 2015. Accessed 28 May 2015.

[6] Hay Dar Yar as quoted in Sa Jan Personal interview. 16 May 2015.

[7] Sa Jan. Personal interview. 16 May 2015.

[8] UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Thailand.” UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. 2015. Accessed 28 May 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e489646.html

[9] Estevas, Mikhail. Mae La Refugee Camp. 22 March 2007. flickr. Accessed 28 May 2015.

[10] Sa Jan. Personal interview. 16 May 2015.