Thailand: UNHCR assisting some 15,000 new refugees from Myanmar

Briefing Notes, 9 November 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 9 November 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR mobilized quickly on Monday to come to the aid of more than 15,000 refugees who fled into northern Thailand after fighting broke out between ethnic Karen rebels and government troops in the Myawaddy area of eastern Myanmar the day after elections. At the request of Thai authorities, we are coordinating the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others to provide shelter, food and water to refugees in the town of Mae Sot.

Refugees started pouring across the border early in the morning on foot and on inner tubes across the Moei River. Some told our 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 to Thailand with only the clothes on their back, some even barefoot. At first only women and children were crossing, but later in the day more men arrived. Among the new arrivals are mothers with newborn babies as young as five days and 15 days.

The new refugees gathered at two locations on the Thai side, but by day's end yesterday, the International Organization for Migration and the Thai military had moved them to one 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. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which normally provides food and shelter to some 152,000 registered and unregistered refugees in the nine camps in Thailand along the Myanmar border, provided food.

French humanitarian organization Solidarit├ęs worked overnight to build 50 latrines and install tanks for drinking water, and Thai border guards provided medical help. Other NGOs involved in the relief efforts include Aide M├ędicale Internationale, International Rescue Committee, Jesuit Refugee Services and the Thai Catholic refugee-aid agency COERR, all of which normally work in the three camps for refugees from Myanmar near Mae Sot.

Local people have been pitching in as well, and we have asked that they co-ordinate their efforts with us to make sure that those who are most in need get helped first. One man delivered 1,000 blankets to the new site, which we plan 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.

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