Rain and cold a crisis for new refugees

Community organisations delivering aid to refugees recently displaced by fighting in Karen state are worried the recent cold weather and heavy rain along the border are a health risk for the 12,000 people taking shelter in makeshift hiding sites.

Community health workers warn displaced people hiding along the Thai Burma border are urgently in need of weatherproof shelters as the recent heavy rain and cold weather is causing problems for the vulnerable – young children and the elderly. The refugees sought temporary safety in Thailand after intense fighting between Karen forces and the Burma army in the Palu and Walay areas in February.

A community-based worker said the weather and cold has made conditions worse.

“Their shelters don’t block the rain, as many as three families are living in small shelters, roughly two metres wide, hardly big enough for one person let alone a family. The situation is getting critical. The people have no room to move, to sleep and unless the fighting stops, they will be here during the whole of the rainy season.”

The community worker says the refugees don’t want to stay in Thailand, but cannot return to their homes in Burma because of landmines.

“They people are being pressured by local Thai authorities to go back, but they’re afraid. The people feel caught in a situation where they can’t get on with their lives. This is mentally bad for them — the rain, the fighting, landmines, shelter, no food, the insecurity — is hurting these people.”

A village headman, Saw Htoo, now staying in a Thai village in Phro Phra Township told KAREN NEWS it rained for four days last week and it has rained heavy all this week.

“The plastic sheets that we were given when we first arrived are now covered in mould and are rotten from being exposed to the sun and rain – they can’t block the rain. Villagers are coping the best they can. Some are moving to friends or to stay with relatives, but that also causes them stress.”

Saw Htoo explains the refugees feel bad imposing themselves and their families on friends and relatives who themselves are struggling to make do. He is also concerned the weather and poor living conditions could result in an outbreak of disease among the displaced people.

“The health of our people will suffer during the rain. We’ve been lucky so far, we have not had any disease outbreaks yet.”

A Karen villager now a refugee also explained how the weather was affecting her family.

“We need not only shelter, but also warm clothes. When our hands and foot get cold, we can’t do anything. This rain is not like wet season rain – it’s very cold. We are worried for our kids.”

A local senior relief worker explained the Thailand based humanitarian agency the Thai-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) are providing basic resources to the refugees while health care is being provided by border based health workers and community-based-organisations.

The relief worker said the size of the current shelter needs, medical care and food delivery logistics facing the refugees is beyond the capabilities, financial resources and other resources of local based groups.

“We know the difficulties that these refugees are facing. The on-going conflict doesn’t allow enough time to initiate a proper planning phase to provide them shelter under the current weather conditions. The reasons are twofold – limited funding and local Thai authorities do not officially recognized the refugees. This makes it very difficult for NGOs and CBO’s to effectively provide assistance.”

The Back Pack Health Worker Team is an independent, non-profit organisation that has been delivering health care for over 13 years to people in conflict zones and rural areas deep inside Burma – where access to health care is otherwise unavailable.

The organisation’s secretary, Mahn Mahn, explained that villagers close to the border fled their homes after the Burmese army moved into the area to wage was against factions of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

“The recent cold weather is a problem. The earthquake in northeast Burma means there is also a demand for tarpaulin to help shelter the homeless in that region. The cold weather is a problem for young children and the old. They need good food, extra clothing and blankets.”

Many of the displaced people are originally from Thai Burma border villages in the Palu and Walay areas in Karen State, others are scattered in a number of makeshift camps on a narrow 800km strip along the Thai border provinces of Kanchanburi, Tak and Mae Hong Son.

The Back Pack Health Worker Team estimates, “that as many as 12,000 Burmese villagers have crossed the border in recent months.”

Saw Htoo, the village headman, said there has not been any dramatic changes in the conflict and threats from landmine and the Burma army patrols are still a real danger, making it impossible for villagers to return to their homes.

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