During the course of my work I have been fortunate to visit Mae La which is a refugee camp in Tak Province in Thailand. Mae La houses some 50,000 of whom over 90% are Karen. It is the largest refugee camp for Burmese in Thailand. Most would imagine that refugee camps are pretty grim places and many are of course but Mae La isn’t at all. It is very well administered by the Karen themselves. This must be the key to any development aid – helping people to help themselves – to avoid any dependency culture (that certainly seems to be ever growing in my own country).
The area of Karen State in Burma whose border is extremely close (artillery range) to Mae La camp is very rural with no large settlements and little infrastructure.
We have a medical clinic in the camp. Below is the the view looking up to it.
Quixotically it has the nicest of meeting rooms where we hold seminars, conduct health worker training and public health education. Extremely simple and absolutely fit for purpose:
and the view from the same room:
Some wood planking is used for the basic frame of the houses and the rest largely bamboo and large leaves for the walls and roofs. The leaves need to be changed fairly regularly to ensure the houses remain water tight. It does not seem at all like a camp of 50,000 as many of the houses are hidden in the folds of the hills and along the valley. Here is a local shop:
The big question is when and if the Karen can go home. Many welcome the recent political changes but most are extremely wary of premature return and will only do so when there is peace and no more fighting in the border regions. Mae la has been shelled in the past by the Burmese army. Certainly there will need to be a great deal of repatriation planning when it happens. Many were born in the camp and know little much beyond the camp. They are a resourceful and stoic people and we would wish them well after all they have been through.