Stunning photographs of Burmese urban refugees in Thailand.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 22 2010 10:15 AM

Life on the Margins

Stunning photographs of urban refugees in Thailand.

Click here to launch a slideshow on refugees in Thailand.

BANGKOK, Thailand—The dilapidated concrete building in the Bangkok suburb of Bang Khun Thian is covered with dirt and green algae stains. Inside, more than 400 people are jammed inside tiny rooms lining a dark and gloomy corridor. The hallway reeks from leaking toilets and human waste.

The building's residents are from the neighboring country of Burma. Like other urban refugees and migrants living in Thailand—estimates range as high as 3 million—they are desperately poor, and many live illegally in the shadows of the city.

Soe Naing, a thin 33-year-old man, resides in one of the small windowless cubicles with his wife and two sisters. "I'm a poor rice farmer," he says. "At home I was forced to sell over half my yield to the government at a fraction of what it was worth. It is impossible to survive there."

Soe Naing and his family represent a new global phenomenon. Whereas the classic image of the refugee is that of a person queuing up for food rations in an isolated and sprawling tent city, more than half of the world's 10.5 million refugees assisted by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, live in the urban slums of cities like Bangkok, Thailand; Amman, Jordan; Khartoum, Sudan; and Nairobi, Kenya. Like billions of other people around the world, refugees have been gradually migrating to cities and towns, mirroring a long-term global trend toward urbanization. There is no evidence that this development is diminishing. Increasingly, those fleeing war and natural disasters are settling in cities and towns. Meanwhile, refugees and other displaced people are opting to remain in their adopted cities rather than return to their homeland, where they often lived in remote rural areas.

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"Refugees and displaced people who settle in urban areas, unlike those who settle in official, organized refugee camps, often have more job opportunities and can earn money," says Kellie Leeson, who runs the Kenya program for the International Rescue Committee. "But life on the fringes of society, in poverty and without proper documentation, is often risky. Urban refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, arrest, and detention. Because they have few skills or resources, they are often forced into dangerous and low-paying jobs on construction sites, plantations, fishing boats, or in factories."

According to a recent IRC report on the plight of Somali refugees living in Nairobi, police harassment of refugees is routine. Police regularly demand bribes from refugees and assault those who refuse to pay. Yet many of the refugees who were interviewed for the report preferred life in the city, even with its hardships, to desolate, overcrowded refugee camps that lack job opportunities.

Soe Naing saw no other option but to sell his small plot of land to raise the money to make the long journey from Arakan state in Burma to Thailand. "I had to pay bribes at 10 army roadblocks before we could even cross into Thailand," he says.

Once in Thailand, Soe Naing joined 4,000 foreign workers at a fish-canning factory in Bang Khun Thian. He works 13 hours a day, six days a week, gutting fish for 6,000 Baht ($200) a month.

"It's very hard work," he says. "It's extremely hot on the factory floor, and it's hard to breathe. Every day people faint and fall over. We often cut ourselves when we clean the fish, or we slip on the wet floor."

Nilar Myaing, an IRC aid worker who works with local Thai organizations that support refugees and migrant workers, says it is not uncommon for the new urban refugees to become the victims of traffickers who trap them into involuntary servitude on farms and factories or in the sex trade. Meanwhile, most of the refugees, as well as migrants who cross into Thailand looking for work, are unable to obtain social or health services or send their children to Thai schools, because they lack legal status. In addition, most refugees and migrants live in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions and are especially vulnerable to tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, and other deadly diseases. In response, the IRC has helped the Thai government set up health facilities in urban areas and industrial zones to treat migrants and head off potential epidemics.

After living in Thailand for a year, Soe Naing and his family still lack permanent housing and can't afford most necessities, let alone a visit to a doctor.

"We haven't got much of a future here in Thailand," Naing says, dejectedly. "My dream is that I will be able to save enough money so that one day in the future, when my country has peace, I will be able to return."

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Peter Biro is the senior communications officer for the International Rescue Committee. Currently based in Thailand, he reports on the IRC's humanitarian aid programs. Born in Sweden, he has also worked for the United Nations in Cambodia, East Timor, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, and as a print journalist and photographer in Europe and Southeast Asia.

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