World Refugee Day

My first story since I started this project has been published – which, frankly, is sooner than expected! 

Al Jazeera published my story on how Karen Women's Organization is calling for more consultation on the repatriation process, which KWO says has not directly involved refugees and local community-based organizations.

Since the coup in May, both the Thai and Burmese governments have spoken repeatedly about sending refugees back to Burma, but many residents are balking at this plan. The Karen ethnic group makes up about 80 percent of the population living in Mae La, so it's no surprise that the KWO released this statement on World Refugee Day. 

About 2,000 students in Mae La gathered to commemorate World Refugee Day. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

About 2,000 students in Mae La gathered to commemorate World Refugee Day. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

I was lucky to gain access to Mae La right around that time, and thus able to include some of the refugees' actual opinions into an otherwise straight-forward news piece. (I'm also pleased that they decided to publish some of my photographs, like the one above.)

Al Jazeera has also highlighted other great refugee stories from around the world, such as one Syrian refugee's journey to a camp in Iraq. Another one I found interesting, thanks to a recommendation by a friend, is this short film about a political refugee who has been given citizenship in Ireland, but will probably never truly feel accepted. 

Getting started

Almost a year ago, I traveled to Mae Sot to write about what was happening in the Thai-Burma border camps after Thailand's military coup. This trip was spurred by my editor at Democratic Voice of Burma, Colin, who said before my trip, "No one knows what's happening in there at the moment." 

Boy, was he right.

Mae La refugee camp, Thailand's largest camp with about 40,000 refugees from Burma, blew my mind. Established about 30 years ago, it upended whatever preconceived notions I had about displacement camps. The image most of the Western world holds in their head comes from the narratives churned out repeatedly by the likes of CNN, BBC, etc – floppy tents with the UN emblem, half-naked children looking hungry, adults with a desperate air of sadness. 

All of this may be true, but the reality is – as it often turns out when we take a closer look – more than just that in Mae La. Because it's been around for decades, it has evolved into a mini-town with schools, marketplaces, gathering spots. With 40,000 residents making up about 13 different ethnicities from Burma, this camp is actually bigger and more diverse that most American towns. There is a rhythm to daily life there, which begins at around 6 am when families trudge to a nearby water pump with buckets to get their clean water for the day.

Mae La camp

Mae La camp

Like Jon Snow, I knew nothing, and to just go in and write a single article about how the military coup affected refugees was insufficient for me. (I'm pausing here to include links to my DVB and Al Jazeera stories, published last year, about this issue.)  I had so many questions about the residents' lives, and very few of them can be answered in a single trip into the camp.

So I've decided that I need to start indulging this mini-obsession of mine with some long-term research. After some planning (and false starts), I traveled to Chiang Mai earlier this month to speak to some organizations that do work within the camps. I will next make my way to Mae Sot, just in time for World Refugee Day.

This is really just the beginning of an interesting year. I'm not sure what I will find, or if it will even materialize into published stories (the goal of many freelance reporters trying to pay for their long-term reporting). But it'll surely be an interesting journey, and I welcome any criticism and advice.