Thai refugee camps face tough year ahead

Nov 25, 2009 (DVB), Rising rice prices and the threat of an influx of Burmese refugees into Thailand over the coming year could place a heavy strain on refugee camps along the border, the head of a refugee aid group warned.

The comments came in the wake of a visit by European Union officials to the Mae La camp in Thailand's western Tak province, which is home to some 40,000 Burmese refugees.

EU funding accounts for around 65 percent of the total $US60 million in international aid that goes to the camps each year.

Jack Dunford, head of the Bangkok-based Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food, shelter and amenities to the camps, said that enough funding had been secured for this year, but warned of an uncertain 12 months ahead.

"There are three variables that we have no control over: exchange rates, the price of rice and the number of refugees, so when we look at annual funding we always have to do some guess work," he said.

"All three tend to be going against us, and with the global funding squeeze, we are expecting that next year is going to be difficult."

While the price of rice has dropped since the peak of the global food crisis last year, he warned that widespread flooding and storms in India and the Philippines, two of the region's main rice producers, may push prices back up.

He also warned of a possible exodus of Burmese fleeing fighting in the run-up to elections in Burma next year, many of whom would cross into Thailand.

"Over the next 12 months we're facing very uncertain times in Burma, in particular huge uncertainties about what's going to happen in the border areas," Dunford said. "We'll obviously see how it plays out, but we could have a major emergency."

The Burmese government has been aggressively attempting to transform the country's 18 ceasefire groups into border guard forces prior to polling; a move that it believes would significantly strengthen its dominance in the volatile border regions.

Fighting between Burmese troops, supported by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) in June, forced around 5000 Karen civilians into Thailand, many of whom ended up in makeshift camps.

Another outbreak of fighting in Burma's northeastern Shan state in August and September caused some 37,000 refugees to cross into neighbouring China.

Some of the camps along the Thai-Burma border have been in place for 25 years, and the EU has sent a senior-level delegation each year to assess conditions inside the camps. In total, around 130,000 Burmese refugees live in the nine camps, the majority from Karen state.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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