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Expert Voices

Change is Needed for Karen Refugees at Umpiem Mai Camp, Thailand

Published April 15, 2024

By Mr. Owl, a writer, artist and client seen at CVT’s Healing Hearts program in Minnesota, U.S.

When I came to the U.S. at the end of 2003 my family’s lives were in danger. We had been living as refugees in a camp in Thailand, one that was later named Umpiem Mai. As Karen people, we had fled years earlier to the camp from our home in Myanmar to escape violence, but now as conflicts erupted in the region, we needed to leave the camp for our safety. We were able to come to the U.S. because we were sponsored by UNHCR – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. We were allowed to start a new life in a country where we were safe.

When we came to the U.S. everything was new to us. There were a lot of surprises; there were so many things we had never seen before. Back in the camp, we lived in housing that was very different and lower quality. Our basic needs were not met. But here in Minnesota, even though it was very cold, it was safe and all our basic needs were met.

At first I felt liberated. I felt that freedom is here.”

At first I felt liberated. I felt that freedom is here. Over there we were restricted, and our lives were in danger. Here I could feel freedom. And it was all very new – the weather was different, it was a new place, a new country on the other side of the world. Living standards are very different here, and many things were confusing. For example, we were not able to operate the stove or an electric appliance here. We felt discouraged and wondered: How will we get by?

It took some time, but we figured out how to make a good life in the United States. And over the years, I have stayed informed about what is going on back in my homeland and in the Umpiem Mai camp. Much has changed; in fact, Umpiem Mai was not the official name of the camp until after I left. But as I keep up with what is going on, there are conditions there that concern me.

There are many refugees living there, and I feel that they have been treated in some ways like a test case or experiment. Many refugees lived in the camp for a very long time, and over the years conflicts sometimes erupted and created harms and challenges. In recent years, a new government came in, consisting of Japanese, Thai, Burmese and Karen state authorities. They made a decision to resettle refugees back into their home countries and began applying pressure to get them to leave. Even though there were some assurances from the authorities, the refugees still had doubts that these assurances were true and that they would be safe or able to make good lives for themselves and their families.

The refugees were being pressured to accept one of three options:

  1. They could go back to settle in their country of origin.
  2. They could take steps to move to a third country.
  3. They could remain in Thailand.

This posed difficult decisions for people living in Umpiem Mai. Most refugees were getting some form of benefits in the camp: low quality housing and maybe a small backyard or side yard to garden or raise chickens or a pig. That program had been working for several years. Facing these options was bleak. For one, they knew that the option to move to a third country was very difficult. Many people had tried but there were many limitations: the American government does not accept extra refugees from the camp, there were language challenges and many additional types of barriers. And the option to remain in Thailand did not present good options for building a life. Mostly, they wanted to get a place to live where they could find a livelihood and financial support. For this reason, many went back to their country of origin.

However, conflict came back a few years later, and they were scattered again. This time, there was no way to return and stay legally in the camp – they were no longer allowed in. And in 2021, there was an election dispute and a violent coup. The fighting started again and even more people had to flee, making conditions even more difficult.

Right now, the current government controls the area but resistance forces have tried to attack the government forces. This creates many dangers, and the refugees are afraid. It is not safe to stay in their country of origin. Fighting can happen at any time.

Yet, they are not allowed to return to Umpiem Mai. The authorities say that because they willingly resettled, now they are not recognized. It’s as if the organizations believe they are not real refugees. They are afraid for their lives but cannot register with the UN.

So they are staying outside the camp, where they don’t get any benefits. They are being supported by some other people, other organizations; I don’t know who they are. It is not organized: sometimes people give them packages of noodles or rice, some days they have nothing. Every day they are faced with having to go back home but they are scared because of the fighting.

In addition, the option to seek resettlement to a third country is not available to them – they cannot register, so they are not eligible.

I believe that if the UN were to visit the camp and speak to the people living just outside, they would learn of this horrible situation. These refugees are facing an impossible dilemma: how long can they stay where they are?

These refugees are facing an impossible dilemma: how long can they stay where they are?”

The United Nations needs to go there, take a deep look and learn about the real situation. They must access the people and ask them to share what has happened. Otherwise, they don’t know.

When I came to the United States, I was generally healthy, physically able; I had a job. But then I had an injury, and that brought out additional problems. My emotional health deteriorated, so I was referred to CVT. All CVT providers were very helpful, and because of them I saw many mental health improvements. I came back to myself again after a long time. Because of them I was stable again. And because of them I have empathy for refugees. I was in their boat, in their shoes. I feel for them. If they had this organization, that would be good.

I am very hopeful for our people, our country. I know that so many people are working and trying to make things better after decades of conflict.”

I am very hopeful for our people, our country. I know that so many people are working and trying to make things better after decades of conflict. It is my hope for other refugees that they can have lives of safety wherever they choose to go. All people want to have a better life. I see that people are working on it, and that gives me hope.

And so I ask for change. The refugees coming back to Umpiem Mai camp must have access. It was their home for many years. It is not safe for them to go back to their home countries. However, now they don’t have access to the camp. They deserve to be given the same opportunity as before. All people deserve a good life.

Note: Mr. Owl chose this pseudonym for security and confidentiality purposes.

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