Journeys: In refugee camps, a life of torpor

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand – Tens of thousands of refugees from Burma have fled this bamboo-hut city and nine others like it for Buffalo and other American cities.

Saw Gay Htoo won’t be one of them.

He has nothing to do here at the largest camp for refugees from Burma’s decades-old ethnic conflicts, and that’s just the way he likes it.

Refugees walk across a bridge at the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, Thursday, April 23, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“We have a good situation in Mae La,” said Saw Gay Htoo, 47, a short, expressionless man who sat idly outside a church at Mae La on a blistering summer day last year.

Asked what he did to pass the time, he said: “Nothing. I just stay at home.”

Many refugees were happy to leave the camps. But there are plenty of people like Saw Gay Htoo here: people whose hopes end at the barbed wire fence that separates this camp’s 38,000 residents from the rest of the world.

The refugee camps in Thailand are third-world, third-rate welfare states: shabby cities of open-air huts and dirt lanes.

“It’s a complete welfare society, from cradle to grave,” said Jim Jacobson, founder and president of Christian Freedom International, which runs a bible school in Mae La. “You can’t get a job, you’re not supposed to leave the camp. You’re just stuck there. It doesn’t take long for it to ruin a person.”

Torpor defines life at Mae La. Men in shorts and T-shirts and the women in blouses and colorful wrap-around called longyis lounge on hammocks or on the edge of their huts, with their legs dangling outside.

It wasn’t always this way. Refugees here and in Buffalo recall a time when they routinely snuck out of camp to work – illegally – in the nearby fields.

But that was before a 2014 military coup in Thailand. Now, soldiers in uniform keep strict guard over who enters and exits each of the camps.

Nearly a quarter of the men at Mae La abuse alcohol, according to a 2012 survey of their wives published in a journal called “Conflict and Health.” And the Karen Womens Organization in 2013 found high rates of domestic violence and rape that went unpunished.

About 104,000 refugees remain in the camps, and with Burma moving toward democracy, the Thai government has hinted that it may close the camps, forcing their occupants back to Burma.

Said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation: “The problem is, there’s no future in the camp.”

– Jerry Zremski

Saw Gay Htoo relaxes on the bench inside the shade of the school at the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, Thursday, April 23, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)