Christian Aid recently took model and actress Lily Cole to the Nai Soi Camp in Mae Hong Son, in Thailand, three miles from the Burmese border. There are 145,000 Burmese refugees living in nine camps along the border in Thailand, some of whom have been there for 26 years.
The Nai Soi camp is home to 15,000 refugees who have fled Burma in order to escape ongoing persecution, harassment, enforced labour and fighting.
These families struggle to survive, dependent upon aid. The Thai authorities are not signatories to the UN Convention on refugees which means families are confined to the camps, with little opportunity to earn a living.
Lily met with several families who are finding ways to survive in the camps. Su Meh arrived with her husband and first child in 1996, after their village was burnt down by the Burmese military. She now has three children and is receiving support from Christian Aid partner the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) which has provided her with the materials to build a home and a basic monthly food ration. Su Meh is one of the lucky ones as she is able to hand weave clothes and bags to sell to others in the camp, allowing her to earn extra money to support her family.
Christian Aid has supported TBBC since 1985, providing basic food rations such as rice, oil, chilli paste and a nutritional supplement called Asia Mix. In addition every family receives charcoal for cooking as it is forbidden to cut down trees because the forest is a protected area.
These camps are unique in that they are the only refugee camps in the world managed by the people that live in them. This model of management helps to rebuild independence and self esteem and provides essential employment.
TBBC also runs workshops to help the refugees learn new skills so they can become increasingly self-sufficient. Peh Reh, who is 44, was taught how to weave in the camp.
Lily also met Kay Roh who arrived in the camp in 2009 after he had been wrongly accused of fighting against the Burmese military. After several months in hiding he managed to flee across the border to Thailand. His wife Rhaimae and their children joined him a few months later. The family receives food and shelter from TBBC and Rhaimae has now found work in a women’s organisation in the camp where she earns a small amount to supplement their living expenses.
Kay Roh, who is an uneducated farmer, has found life in the camp very difficult as he is unable to use his farming skills to earn a living. He said: ‘Life in Burma was my farm and my house. We couldn’t take any money from there when we left. Our parents are looking after the land but we can’t communicate with them. If there’s opportunity to go outside the camps, I would like to. I would like to find a job to earn money for my family.’
Lily Cole is fronting the Christian Aid Christmas Appeal which aims to highlight the plight of tens of millions of refugees and displaced people worldwide who have been driven from their homes by disaster, war, persecution or hunger. Lily said: ’It’s been an incredibly moving and inspiring visit. Charities like Christian Aid are collaborating to make sure these people have food, work, and somewhere to call home. They are also trying to come up with solutions to try and make the community more self-sufficient, like the small vegetable patches I saw and the weaving centre. The shelter and food programmes are essentially keeping 145,000 people alive every day, and Christian Aid is one of the organisations enabling that. So I think it’s a really fantastic charity and I’m very proud to be supporting it.’
Donations can be made by calling 0845 7000 300 or at www.christianaid.org.uk/christmas.
PHOTOS: Christian Aid/ Kate Tomlinson