Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Starting a new life in a legal grey zone: a Burmese refugee family

Written by on . Published in Searchlight.

This article was originally drafted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for Issue 14 of the newsletter “Asian Trends Monitoring Bulletin” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

20 years ago, Madame Khin decided to run away from her home in Burma after she was randomly arrested and harassed by a Burmese police officer. She belongs to the Muslim ethnic minority of the Rohingya people settled in western Burma. She wanted to escape the forlorn life of poverty and made her way over the Thailand–Burma border to Mae Sot.

File:Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Mae Sot, Thailand.jpg

Mae Sot, Thailand

Madame Khin is the head of a household of 11 members, all living in a former warehouse. The household is comprised of three small children, two teenagers, two working men, two women and two older women. However, only the children have Thai citizenship and are thus on secure legal ground. Madame Khin herself would be a considered an illegal immigrant under the law, but by staying out of trouble she has avoided the authorities for more than two decades. She is now taking care of her two grandchildren after her daughter and son-in-law passed away following an HIV infection. She hasn’t brought her grandchildren for HIV tests, in fear of what the results might be.

The working adults barely earn enough money to cover the rent for the warehouse and the family tries to make ends meet by renting out storage space to Burmese merchants operating in Mae Sot. They also run an improvised coffee shop on the pavement in front of their house but it does not generate much returns. From time to time Khin’s sister helps out with a monthly contribution of her income as a tailor, typically she can spare between Thai Bt 1,000–2,000 (approximately US$32–64).

When asked whether she could imagine going back to Burma one day, Madame Khin shakes her head. “I have lived here for such a long time, Mae Sot is my home now, and I just wished it was possible for me to visit my relatives,” she says.

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Myanmar is the largest source of refugees in Southeast Asia, and globally it ranks 13th behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Starting from 1984, refugees have fled to Myanmar’s neighbouring states; it is considered as one of the world’s most intractable refugee situations.

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Mae La Refugee Camp, Thailand

Currently, there are just below 150,000 registered Burmese refugees in camps located along the Thailand Burma border, but the number of Burmese migrant workers, legal and illegal, is much larger. One of the issues is the confusion between refugees who fled from persecution and migrant workers seeking a better life. In consequence, “legitimate asylum seekers and refugees are instead treated as migrants in breach of immigration laws” says Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR. The Thai media aggravates the negative public perception of refugees and migrants alike by portraying them as “unlawful”, “dangerous”, “disease carriers” and “drug traffickers.”


Searchlight Process

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