Thai communities rally round boat arrivals in south
Hundreds of women and children who fled Myanmar and arrived in Thailand have received an outpouring of assistance from communities far and wide.
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