A Fresh Start: Myanmar Refugees Find a New Home after Decades in Thailand
Mae Sot, 26 September 2022 – Life in Thailand is all Ah May has known.
A native of the Karen ethnic group in Myanmar, 22-year-old Ah had never set foot in his home country. His mother left for Thailand when she was 19 and had him at a young age.
Since the age of six, Ah has been living in the Umpiem Mai temporary shelter – 12 kilometres from the Myanmar border, in Thailand’s Tak Province. An estimated 10,600* individuals reside in the shelter, predominantly people of Karen ethnicity who fled conflict decades ago.
“Life has been difficult. I never had opportunities, no hope, no identity,” he says about living in limbo. “I receive an allowance of around THB 250 (approximately USD 7)** per month, but it’s not enough with prices of goods increasing. Sometimes, we don’t have enough food.”
Life for Ah is about to change drastically, as he prepares to board a plane for the first time to start afresh in the United States.
IOM’s resettlement work in Thailand dates back to the 1970s. Here, a family of Indochinese refugees prepares for departure to France. Photo: IOM/Karl Zirbs
Ah is one of over 145,000 refugees that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Thailand has assisted since 2004 to resettle to third countries – predominantly the United States, Australia and Canada, but to many others as well.
IOM has been working closely with the Royal Thai Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since 1975, when it began assisting nearly half a million Indochinese refugees to start new lives abroad.
Roughly 91,000* remain in nine temporary shelters along the Thai-Myanmar border, most of whom have been residing in the shelters for decades, and 84 per cent of whom are Karen.
“Thanks to the generosity and commitment of receiving countries, resettlement is an important process to support people fleeing persecution,” remarks Francesco Supit, IOM’s Head of Sub-Office in Mae Sot, where a majority of resettlement operations in Thailand is managed.
In recent years, IOM’s work in Thailand has been focused on facilitating the resettlement of refugees who have lived in temporary shelters for prolonged durations. Many had been accepted by UNHCR up to five years ago.
In 2021, IOM supported the resettlement of 901 refugees from Thailand – the lowest figure since 2006. “We must remember that resettlement is not a sustainable solution for everyone. There needs to be an enabling environment for many other refugees to return home safely when the time allows or for them to integrate locally,” added Supit.
A final farewell for a refugee departing the Mae La temporary shelter, roughly an hour’s drive from Mae Sot. Photo: IOM
Once individuals are accepted for resettlement, IOM receives notifications from receiving countries. Individuals undergo a comprehensive health assessment and pre-departure medical checks to ensure they are fit to travel.
“The process includes complete medical examination and laboratory tests, according to technical instructions from the resettlement country. We provide vaccination, counselling and treatment for pre-departure stabilization, where needed,” explains Dr Poe Sandi Oo, IOM physician.
“The environment and living conditions in the shelters can, unfortunately, lead to adverse health conditions, such as malnutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases. We need to ensure that refugees can travel in good health.”
Once refugees are cleared for travel, IOM facilitates travel arrangements.
A family of three also awaits resettlement to the United States, joining Ah in his final days in Thailand. Photo: IOM/Miko Alazas
A day before his flight to the United States, Ah sits next to Maung Maung and Mu Kyong Paw at the IOM premises in Mae Sot.
Both Maung and Mu fled Myanmar as children, although the exact ages escape them. Now in their mid-20s, they also do not recall where exactly in Myanmar they came from. They met at the Umpiem Mai shelter, got married and now have a seven-year-old child, who has also only ever known life in Thailand.
All four are partaking in a final pre-departure orientation, during which an experienced trainer takes them through aspects of the life-changing journey they are about to undertake. Since it will be the first time that most, if not all, have been on a plane, the lessons include basics like how to board a plane, fasten one’s seatbelt, use the lavatory, what to do during a layover, and more.
Such orientation is a critical component of preparing individuals for their new lives abroad – aimed at providing practical information about their new countries and empowering them with the skills and attitudes to succeed abroad.
Khun Khu Khu’s role is to deliver orientations prior to departure. Photo: IOM/Miko Alazas
Although the orientation goes a long way in alleviating some of his fears, Ah is not shy to express the challenges he foresees. “I have to learn a new language, get used to a new environment, understand a new transport system. It will take time to adjust.”
Although Maung and Mu share the same reservations, they are grateful for the opportunities and choices their son will now have. Their reservations are eased, remembering that Mu’s parents had been resettled to the same town in the United States a year ago and will be at hand to help them settle into their new lives. “Her father works in a pork factory,” says Maung. “I hope I can find a job quickly too. I’ll be satisfied with any job.”
Unfortunately, Maung’s parents remain in Umpiem – as does Ah’s mother. “It was very sad to say goodbye to my mother and friends,” expresses Ah, “but for now, I have to look forward to my future.”
Ah hopes to go back to school, earn a degree and find work. When asked what type of work he hopes to get into, he immediately quips: “I want to find a job where I can help others integrate smoothly when they arrive in the United States. I want to be there for others.”
While some dread a long-haul flight halfway around the globe, for others, it signifies a lifeline – a path to new beginnings.
*UNHCR data as of August 2022
**Residents of the Umpiem Mai temporary shelter receive a monthly food stipend from The Border Consortium, ranging from THB 240 to THB 370 (USD 6 to 10) according to vulnerability criteria.
This story was written by Miko Alazas, IOM’s Media and Communications Officer in Thailand.