First Karen refugees swap tropical forest of Thailand for US concrete jungle

A first group of 23 ethnic Karens left a refugee camp in Thailand this week for new lives in the United States. They are among hundreds of Karen refugees who are slated to be resettled in North America.

At Tham Hin refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border, the first Karen refugees to be resettled in the United States board a bus for the start of their journey to a new life.  ©  UNHCR Thailand

THAM HIN, Thailand, August 18 (UNHCR) - The first of hundreds of Karen refugees who are slated to be resettled in the United States left their long-time refuge in the tropical forests of Thailand this week for a new life in America's urban jungles.

Waved off by at least 300 refugee friends who are awaiting their own turn to leave, the first group of 23 Karen - a persecuted ethnic minority group in Myanmar - left Tham Hin camp on the Thai-Myanmar border earlier this week, and touched down in Chicago on Wednesday.

"This is a programme that was at least two years in the preparation, and I am very happy that it's finally taking off," said Hasim Utkan, the UN refugee agency's regional representative in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

"Allowing several hundreds of refugees to leave will reduce pressures in this over-crowded camp, and may also be a first step towards relocating or closing this camp, which has been plagued by so many problems over the years," he added.

As many as 2,700 of Tham Hin's 9,500 refugees are scheduled to be resettled in the United States by the end of this year. This week, resettlements to Canada also started from another camp in Thailand, Mae La Oon, with a first small group of Karen refugees going to Saskatoon.

The first group to leave Tham Hin included three families - one travelling with their one-year-old baby boy - and a number of men in their early 20s. An old local bus took them to a nearby town, where they spent the night. The next morning, freshly bathed and sporting new clothes, they boarded a brand-new air-conditioned bus for the three-hour journey to Bangkok, where they boarded a flight for Chicago.

They were met by volunteers from non-governmental organisations who will help them adjust to life in their new home cities, including San Francisco, New York, Jacksonville, Hartford, Omaha, Fort Wayne and Ithaca.

Refugees who are headed for the US have spent months learning elementary English and becoming acquainted with American customs. The cultural orientation programme, run by the International Organization for Migration, covers everything from what an American bathroom looks like to how to shake hands and how to use a toothbrush. Many who attended a class on American breakfast were relieved to learn that in the US they can still eat noodles.

"Will there be cars in America?," asked one seven-year-old boy, who is fascinated by the four-wheel drive vehicles that UNHCR staff drive to the camp. The boy, who has never ridden in a car, was overjoyed to learn that most people in the US take a ride in a car every day.

While life in North America may be a struggle for the newcomers, it will likely be a relief from the hardships they have coped with in the Thai refugee camps. Tham Hin, designated a "temporary" settlement by the Thai government many years ago, is overcrowded and camp residents are forbidden to go outside. This confinement has led to a host of problems, including crime, domestic violence and rape.

Tham Hin refugee camp is overcrowded and the people who live there are not allowed outside.  © UNHCR/K.McKinsey

Thailand has only recently accepted that the Karens are unlikely to be able to go back to Myanmar any time soon and it has accepted resettlement as a solution for some of them. Many of the 140,000 Karen refugees have been in Thailand for up to two decades, and the younger ones were born on the Thai side of the border and have never even seen their homeland. Karen refugees continue to cross the border.

As well as the US and Canada, UNHCR is working with a number of countries - Australia, Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway - to increase the number of Karen refugees who are accepted from Thailand, either as a group, or as individuals with special needs.

"We would like to broaden the number of countries involved in this useful process," said Kirsten Young, UNHCR's assistant regional representative for protection in Bangkok. "Our plans for this year include an additional group referral to the US, as well as a second group referral to Canada," she added.

Next year, the U.N. refugee agency aims to submit the names of some 15,000 Karen refugees to various countries for resettlement.

By Kitty McKinsey in Bangkok, Thailand