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Thailand: latest on Karen villagers from Myanmar

Briefing notes

Thailand: latest on Karen villagers from Myanmar

12 June 2009

UNHCR staff have visited five sites in northern Thailand where Karen villagers are taking shelter after fleeing eastern Myanmar since 3 June. We have now verified the presence of 2,000 recent arrivals. Although we cannot absolutely say this is the total number who have crossed the Moei River to Thailand in this period, we have not seen evidence of significantly higher numbers.

The Karen villagers are taking shelter mostly in temples, in a communal hall and in private Thai homes in four villages. A large group at a fifth place called Mae Usu who were reported to be sheltering in a cave are actually in a large field that was once the site of a refugee camp many years ago. This group, estimated at between 700 and 900 people, is living in seasonal agricultural houses that farmers use when they are harvesting crops, but which are normally empty at this time of year. The new arrivals at this location have some possessions they brought with them, and also have received rice, blankets and other relief items from the Thai-Burma Border Consortium, a non-governmental organization that has been serving Karen refugees along the border since the 1980s.

By and large, the Karen villagers say they fled in fear of conscription by armed forces or of forced labour as porters for armed forces. Those who mentioned military action mostly said they fled in anticipation of fighting as the Myanmar army and their allies, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, approached rebel Karen National Union bases and villages. Only a few said their villages had actually been shelled, but while our staff interviewed the recent arrivals on the Thai side of the border on Tuesday and Thursday, they heard shelling on the Myanmar side.

Although some of the Karen villagers, who are mostly farmers, managed to bring some possessions with them, others said they fled with only the clothes on their back. They now say they need clothes, especially baby clothes, as well as soap, and bamboo pallets to keep from having to sleep in the mud. It is raining heavily. UNHCR has already distributed 200 plastic sheets to help with emergency shelter.

Our staff report that most of the new arrivals seem to be women and children. Some of the Karen women say many of their men stayed behind to protect crops and livestock. They also admit some men are scattered throughout Thai villages trying to find day labour and are not registered at the five sites. Many of the new arrivals said they would like to go back to Myanmar if the situation calms down. Many said they had crossed over to Thailand for safety for short periods in the past and then gone home. Thai authorities have responded quickly and sympathetically to the needs of the new arrivals and we are working well together with them and with non-governmental agencies to meet the needs of the Karen villagers.