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Departures of Myanmar refugees from Thailand top 20,000 mark

Departures of Myanmar refugees from Thailand top 20,000 mark

In the past two years, more than 20,000 refugees from Myanmar have traded camp life in Thailand for resettlement in countries like the United States, Australia and Canada.
11 December 2007
Refugees take part in a cultural orientation exercise ahead of their resettlement overseas.

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, December 11 (UNHCR) - In a bamboo thatch hut in this huge, crowded refugee camp, some of the 45,000 residents are learning skills they're soon going to need - how to pass through airport security, how to find their seat on an airplane and how to buckle a seatbelt.

This cultural orientation is one of the crucial steps on a journey that has opened up new worlds to more than 20,000 refugees from Myanmar who have left South-east Asia to restart their lives in faraway countries under the world's largest resettlement programme.

The number of people who have been resettled in third countries from Thailand since the programme started in 2005 now stands at 20,878, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

A further 3,471 Myanmar refugees in camps in Thailand have been approved for resettlement and are just waiting for their departure date, with people now leaving almost every day.

"Many of the refugees are very excited about resettlement," said Eldon Hager, resettlement officer in UNHCR's Mae Sot field office, who spends much of his time in Mae La, Nu Po and Umpium camps. "They view it as very positive."

After many years - nearly two decades in some cases - of living in camps in Thailand with no freedom of movement, "there's optimism that there's a way out of the camps," added Hager. Most of the refugees fled fighting and oppression in Myanmar, and took refuge in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, which now have a population of 124,300 registered refugees.

The United States - which made an open-ended offer in 2005 to take refugees from the camps in Thailand - has taken the largest number, 11,737 refugees. They have gone to cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota; Fresno, California; Lansing, Michigan; Dallas, Texas and Syracuse and Buffalo in New York state.

Australia has received 2,154 and Canada 2,132 during this period. Other resettlement countries for Myanmar refugees are Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

"Resettlement is an important solution for refugees for whom returning home or integrating into their countries of asylum is not possible, and we are grateful to resettlement countries for giving so many refugees the opportunity of a new life," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said Tuesday in Geneva.

For refugees like those learning to use a seatbelt in Mae La, resettlement is a leap into the unknown. "It's not easy," says Hager. "You have to restart your life, learn a strange language, deal with a new culture, you're expected to work in a foreign country."

Refugees are choosing resettlement for the sake of their children, Hager adds. "Starting over in a foreign country is tough, but they say it's worth it because their children will get a good education and will have a better future."

By Kitty McKinsey in Mae La Refugee Camp, Thailand