UNHCR helps thousands of Karens fleeing fighting in Myanmar

News Stories, 9 November 2010

© REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
A group of refugees from Myanmar sit in a pick-up truck near Mae Sot on Tuesday.

BANGKOK, Thailand, November 9 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency is coordinating efforts to provide shelter, food and water for thousands of refugees who have crossed into northern Thailand to escape fighting between ethnic Karen rebels and Myanmar government troops.

UNHCR mobilized on Monday, at the request of the Thai authorities, to help an estimated 15,000 Karen refugees who started pouring across the Moei River into Thailand early in the morning on foot and on inner tubes.

Some told UNHCR staff they felt their lives were at risk after their houses were attacked, while others said they fled the sound of fighting. Many collected their children from school and fled with only the clothes on their back. At first only women and children were crossing, but later Monday more men arrived. Among the new arrivals are mothers with newborn babies.

After hearing that the fighting had apparently ended, almost all the refugees walked back to Myanmar across the Friendship Bridge on Tuesday afternoon and UNHCR staff confirmed only about 200 spent Tuesday night at the evacuation site in Mae Sot.

The new refugees gathered at two locations on the Thai side, but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Thai military moved them late Monday to a site near Mae Sot airport. There were indications it might be too small to hold the swelling numbers.

"We emptied our warehouse in Mae Sot to provide 90 tents, which Thai authorities and the refugees themselves erected in the evening. Today, UNHCR plastic sheeting is being put up to provide more shelter," a spokesman for the refugee agency said. The Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, which normally distributes food and shelter to 152,000 registered and unregistered refugees in camps along Thailand's border with Myanmar, provided food.

The French humanitarian organization Solidarités worked overnight to build 50 latrines and install tanks for drinking water, and Thai border guards provided medical help. Other non-governmental organizations involved in the relief efforts include Aide Médicale Internationale, the International Rescue Committee, Jesuit Refugee Services and the Thai Catholic refugee aid agency, COERR. All these NGOs normally work in three refugee camps near Mae Sot.

Local people have been pitching in as well, and UNHCR has asked that they coordinate their efforts with the refugee agency to make sure that those who are most in need get helped first. One man delivered 1,000 blankets to the new site, which UNHCR plans to distribute today to the most vulnerable.

"UNHCR staff from our Mae Sot office are at the site again today to monitor the welfare of the new arrivals, and find out more about their needs and why they fled. We are working well with the Thai government and NGOs in coordinating services to the refugees," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, in Kanchanaburi province west of Bangkok, UNHCR staff are working with the Thai authorities at a school at Three Pagodas Pass to assess the needs of some 3,000 refugees who crossed the border there late Monday and early Tuesday.

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