Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

The Children of Mae La: Reflections on Regional Refugee Cooperation

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

The Children of Mae La: Reflections on Regional Refugee Cooperation

Article excerpt


I   Welcome to Mae Sot

II  Protracted Refugee Situations in Southeast Asia

III International Regulation of Migration
      A International Law
          1 Right to Seek and Enjoy Asylum
          2 Non-Refoulement
          3 Other Impediments to Expulsion
          4 Detention
          5 Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
          6 The Right to Work
          7 Other Rights
          8 Protection from Trafficking and Smuggling
          9 Statelessness
      B Regional Law
      C Intergovernmental Processes

IV  Regional Refugee Resettlement
    A Resettlement Programs
    B Dreams for a Better Future


The town of Mac Sot in Northern Thailand is, on the surface, a sleepy town. The town of 120 000 is located on the border with Burma (or Myanmar), and is joined to the town of Myawaddy on the Burmese side by the Friendship Bridge, opened in 1997. (1) Lonely Planet cheerfully calls it a 'small but simmering tourist destination' with a 'vibrant market, good restaurants and a fascinating cultural mix'. (2)

The trade of gems is in plain view in the main street and down by the Friendship Bridge. Burmese script is on almost every shop front. Service industries in Mae Sot, also referred to by the locals as 'Little Burma', are staffed principally by Burmese migrants, lawfully and unlawfully present in Thailand. More than 80 000 Burmese migrant workers fill the factories and sweatshops in the surrounding area. (3)

Thailand hosts over 3 million migrant workers, of which 80 per cent are estimated to come from Burma. (4) Many migrant workers are de facto refugees who have left their homes due to the same human rights abuses experienced by the people living in the camps. (5) Since 1984, the Burmese have fled to Thailand as a result of long-running ethnic conflicts and, later, because of opposition to the Burmese military government. (6) The conflicts in Burma have displaced an estimated 2 million Burmese outside their country, with over 500 000 displaced within Burma. (7)

Many Burmese live in the countryside around Mac Sot in one of the three main camps--Mac La, Nu Po and Umpiem Mai. Over 46 000 lived in Mac La alone in August 2012. (8) There are six other camps along the Thai-Burmese border. (9) Between July and December 2011, these camps were home to nearly 140 000 people. (10)

The camps, set up as temporary measures, have become part of the landscape. Residents of the camps are prevented from living or resettling elsewhere in Thailand. There are numerous young adults who have lived their whole life within a camp, who have no immediate prospect of life outside the camp, either in Thailand or in a third country. Some hope of a durable solution has emerged recently in the form of political reforms by the Burmese government, (11) which have included new ceasefire agreements in relation to ethnic conflicts. (12) However, the situation is fragile and, understandably, many Burmese migrants and refugees are likely to be reluctant to return in the near future. (13)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ('UNHCR') observes of the situation in Thailand:

   The situation of refugees from Myanmar in camps in Thailand is one
   of the most protracted in the world. These refugees have been
   confined to nine closed camps since they began arriving in the
   1980s. According to Thai law, those found outside the camps are
   subject to arrest and deportation. Legally, refugees have no right
   to employment. The prolonged confinement of Myanmar refugees in
   camps has created many social, psychological and protection
   concerns. The coping mechanisms of refugees have been eroded, and
   the restrictions imposed on them have increased their dependence on
   assistance. (14)

In 2005, the Thai Government stopped screening and registering new arrivals in the camps. The Thai Government began a census in late May 2011, at which time an estimated 40 per cent of camp residents were unregistered. …

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