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Thai communities rally round boat arrivals in south

News Stories, 13 February 2013

UNHCR staff speak with recent boat arrivals in a shelter for women and children in Songkhla, southern Thailand.

SONGKHLA, Thailand, February 12 (UNHCR) Women's shelters are usually well-kept secrets, tucked away in confidential locations to protect the identity of victims of abuse and other forms of exploitation.

But one shelter in southern Thailand's Songkhla province has been thrust into the spotlight after regular visits by the media and the international community. Everyone wants to meet its new residents, a group of 105 women and children from Myanmar's Rakhine state. They are among the some 1,700 recent boat arrivals the Royal Thai Government has allowed to stay in Thailand until solutions can be found for them.

Amina*, a 30-year-old mother of four from Maungdaw in northern Rakhine state, is grateful for the temporary respite. She said life back home became unbearable after last year's inter-communal violence. Surrounded by nine Rakhine villages, her Muslim-minority village felt constantly under siege.

"They came with knives and other weapons," she said. "We managed to protect ourselves for two months. But one day we saw them coming with fire, that's when we decided to leave."

Armed with a few bags of clothes, Amina walked southwards with her children, aged five to 13 years, stopping in Muslim villages for refuge along the way. Eventually her uncle called and told her about a boat leaving for Malaysia, where her husband is working. The family made their way to the departure point, paid 200,000 kyat (about US$234) and found themselves in an overcrowded boat with about 200 people.

"We brought some dried rice but finished it after three days. There was drinking water but we were very hungry," said Amina. "We were at sea for 12 days, the children sitting on my lap. As we approached Thailand, it rained and the water was very rough. We were so afraid."

The ordeal did not end when they landed in Thailand. According to Amina, the group was taken by unidentified men first to a forest location, then to a house where they stayed until it was raided by the police in mid-January. After spending two days in prison, Amina and her children were taken to the shelter in Songkhla.

Since the group's arrival, the shelter has been overwhelmed by an outpouring of assistance from the local authorities, organizations and communities. Donations include food, clothing, footwear, toiletries, detergent and sanitary materials. One package came from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, some 1,500 km away.

"In the beginning, the donations were just piling up. We had to mobilize many workers to sort them," said a woman who works at the shelter. Today, big sacks of rice, boxes of instant noodles, tins of biscuits and other supplies are neatly stored in three rooms at the shelter.

Those requiring medical attention after the long voyage and subsequent detention have been taken to the local hospital. The children have been vaccinated against common diseases.

Students from nearby universities still bring cooked food every day, though the women have started cooking for themselves with the 1 kilogramme of salt and 5 kilogrammes of fresh chillies provided daily by the shelter staff on request. The students have also organized recreational activities such as arts and crafts, singing and dancing.

Their Thai hosts are going out of their way to ensure the women and children feel at home, but language and cultural differences are making it hard for them to fully adjust to life in the shelter. Local staff are also struggling to cope with the large group and have asked for reinforcements.

Asked how she was coping, Amina said, "The people are very nice and caring here. I can sleep with no problem. But my husband is in Malaysia and I want to join him there."

Since late January, staff from the UN refugee agency have been talking to women and children in seven shelters across Thailand's south, as well as men in immigration detention centres, to get a clearer profile of their humanitarian and protection needs.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Vivian Tan, in Songkhla, southern Thailand




UNHCR country pages

Angelina Jolie revisits Myanmar refugees on World Refugee Day

UNHCR's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie spent this year's World Refugee Day with Karenni refugees from Myanmar. Some have been in exile in Thailand for 30 years, making this one of the longest-running refugee situations in the world.

On her fourth visit to the refugee camps in Thailand, Jolie met Baw Meh's family, three generations of refugees who have lived in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp since 1996.

The family told Jolie they fled Myanmar's Kayah state thinking they would return home shortly. Eighteen years later, they are still here. Baw Meh, 75, lost her husband last year. He died before he could fulfill his dream of returning home. Some of their family members have been resettled to third countries. Others have chosen to stay. Baw Meh has refused to go, preferring to stay close to her village.

Like many refugees along the border, her family is watching the reform process in Myanmar closely and mulling the prospect of eventual return. "After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward," said Jolie. "This is our chance to get it right, to break the vicious cycle of conflict and displacement once and for all."

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UNHCR is working with the Thai government and non-governmental organisations to ensure the new arrivals are admitted to the camps and provided with adequate shelter and protection. Shelter has been a major issue as the capacity in many refugee camps has been overwhelmed. In a breakthrough in mid-May, Thai authorities agreed to build proper houses for the new arrivals.

There are currently 140,000 refugees from Myanmar living in nine border camps in Thailand, many of them have been there for up to 20 years.

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