10,000 Karen refugees lacking food

Food shortages are afflicting thousands of refugees who have fled to Thailand to escape ongoing fighting in Burma’s eastern Karen state.

Many of those living in makeshift tents in Tak province since late January had already been uprooted from their homes in the volatile state. Termed internally displaced persons (IDPs), they had fled into the Karen jungle before intensified fighting pushed them over the border into Thailand.

Now their plight is compounded by inadequate shelter and food shortages, with many forced to live on plain rice and, unable to work in Thailand, struggling to make money.

“We only get rice: two cups per person each day, provided once every two weeks,” said one man in the border town of Mae Sot. “It’s difficult enough even for the [sympathisers] to donate rice because Thailand doesn’t officially approve this.”

Among the refugees are many elderly women and young children who are at heightened risk of malnutrition and illness, and who likely suffered during the precarious trip across the border.

Accommodation when they arrived in Thailand was a series of huts and tents erected beneath trees, while some had been given shelter in farm huts by Thai locals they were familiar with, the man said.

Numbers have expressed a strong desire to return to their villages in Karen state but were warned against going back due to the concentration of landmines in the border region. Last week a seven-year-old girl was taken to hospital after her bike ran over a mine, causing injuries to her feet and legs.

Mahn Mahn, secretary of the Back Pack Health Workers’ Team (BPHWT), which provides medical help for victims inside Karen state and along the Thai border, access to the 10,000 or so refugees was difficult.

“[They] are not recognised by the Thai government so this can cause difficulty in the long-term,” he said. “We are trying to get more basic food materials such as salt and Ngapi [fish paste] and necessary items for mothers and children.

“However, there are limitations in the effort to bring the aid to all the refugees as they are spread out. At least, we are trying to get rice to them, despite the limitations.”

Thailand’s policy towards refugees fleeing the fighting has been inconsistent,  at times allowing the Karen to stay in more formal shelters in towns like Mae Sot, and other times refusing them to move beyond the banks of the Moei river that separates the two countries.

The UN’s special envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said yesterday that increasing numbers of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in Southeast Asian countries was evidence that the pariah’s domestic crisis had become a regional problem.

Fighting between the opposition Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Burmese troops that began on 8 November last year has fluctuated in intensity, while the DKBA has received support from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).

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