One year on, Myanmar refugees support COVID-19 prevention efforts in Thailand
Myanmar refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border are continuing to urge their friends and family to remain vigilant, wear masks and practise physical distancing.
Poe Gaw, a resident of Mae Ra Ma Luang camp since 1995, sharing COVID-19 updates and advice through the camp's PA system.
© UNHCR/Htay Aye
One year since the first confirmed imported and local cases of COVID-19 were reported in Thailand in January 2020, Myanmar refugees are continuing to share COVID-19 prevention information in solidarity with the people of Thailand and in support of the ongoing efforts of the Thai Government.
There are some 92,000 Myanmar refugees, mainly of Karen and Karenni ethnicity, living in nine temporary shelters (camps) on the Thai-Myanmar border, some of who have lived in Thailand as long ago as the mid-1980s after fleeing conflict between armed ethnic armies and the Myanmar military.
COVID-19 impacts everyone and refugees in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as local people. However, these groups can be particularly vulnerable as a result of challenges they may face meeting basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19 and obtaining hygiene items or medical support.
All over the world, national authorities are responsible for public health responses, however to complement Thai Government-led efforts UNHCR together with its partners has been regularly sharing essential COVID-19 prevention information with the refugee community in Karen, Karenni and Burmese languages, including through small meetings, home visits and film screenings, posters and camp PA system announcements, and has also distributed cloth face masks to all refugees in the nine camps. UNHCR’s partners have delivered training to refugees to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively share COVID-19 prevention guidance within their community.
In response to a new wave of cases recently reported in some areas of Thailand, all groups across the country are being urged to remain vigilant. Encouraging their friends, families and neighbours to continue to practise physical distancing and wear masks can be challenging, but these refugees recognize the importance of raising awareness to ensure that their community continues to be well informed and is encouraged follow preventative measures.
“I tell residents how they can protect themselves from the spread of the disease, including encouraging them to wash their hands and wear face masks.”
– Poe Gaw, Myanmar refugee
Myanmar refugee Poe Gaw, 61, has lived in Mae Ra Ma Luang Temporary Shelter in Mae Hong Son Province since 1995. She supports the efforts of the camp committee which is responsible for sharing COVID-19 updates and practical advice through the PA system. These announcements are delivered regularly following reports of an increase in new confirmed cases both in Thailand and in neighbouring Myanmar. “I tell residents how they can protect themselves from the spread of the disease, including encouraging them to wash their hands and wear face masks,” she explains.
Saw Wait Lah, 67, has lived in Mae La Oon Temporary Shelter, Mae Hong Son Province since 2015 and is the leader of a group of 10 households in his section. Last year he received training on COVID-19 prevention measures from a health INGO. “This helped me to know how to share the information and raise awareness among my neighbours and other residents in my section,” he explains.
In addition to ongoing concerns regarding COVID-19 prevention, the meeting of a wide range of basic needs continues to be a critical issue for many refugees in the nine camps. Their already precarious living situation has been exacerbated during the pandemic with many facing challenges in meeting basic needs as a result of COVID-19-related restrictions, also compounding many of the existing protection risks among the most vulnerable refugees.
In response, UNHCR, working in close partnership with the Thai Government, humanitarian organizations, Thai private sector and civil society, has increased and broadened its support to address these increased needs, while ensuring the continuation of gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection activities and advocating for funding to be maintained to enable the continued delivery of essential support.
UNHCR has also been advocating that asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons in Thailand should be fully included in government COVID-19 national surveillance, response and planning activities, and should be able to access COVID-19 testing, clinical care and case management. Looking forward, UNHCR is advocating for these groups to be included in the Government’s vaccine distribution plan in line with the national allocation framework. All over the world, ensuring that refugees are included in vaccine rollouts is key to ending the pandemic. Excluding refugees, other displaced people or non-nationals from vaccination plans carries the risk of ongoing transmission in these populations, with spillovers into the national population.