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Last Updated: Monday, 26 February 2007, 14:25 GMT
Life on the Burma-Thai border
Burmese migrants pouring tea in an Burmese-style teashop
Mae Sot often seems more Burmese than Thai
In the first of a series of articles from the Thai-Burma border, the BBC's Kate McGeown looks at the thousands of political and economic migrants who flee Burma for Thailand every year.

If you did not know that the town of Mae Sot was in Thailand, you would probably assume it was in Burma.

Burmese script is written on almost every shop front, most of the men walk round town wearing longyis (sarongs) and traditional Burmese teashops are on every corner.

The presence of so much that is quintessentially Burmese is unsurprising, given that Burmese nationals in this border town now outnumber Thais by more than two to one.

It is the same story in the countryside nearby, which is home to an increasing number of Burmese living in UN-administered camps, as well as a large population of economic migrants.

Despite the fact they are in the minority, being a Thai in this area has distinct advantages. Most Burmese are either confined to refugee camps, or working to feed their families amidst the constant threat of deportation.

"Burmese people face many challenges here," said Ko Phyo, the deputy head of local migrant association Yaung Chi Oo (New Dawn).

"But every year more continue to come, because the situation in Burma is getting worse and worse."

Fleeing for their lives

Burma is ruled by a repressive military junta, which is showing little desire to improve the rights and living conditions of its poverty-stricken people.

Burmese in Mae Sot speak about their lives

Not only is it hard for ordinary citizens to earn a living, it is becoming increasingly dangerous for some people to continue living there at all.

Members of certain ethnic groups are particularly at risk - especially the Karen, who live in areas of conflict between the military and rebel fighters.

Many people from these groups have fled across the Thai border, and are now living in refugee camps.

There are three main camps around Mae Sot - Mae La, Noe Po and Umpium. Together, they are home to about 97,500 people.

Many camp residents - particularly the recent arrivals - are just grateful for a safe place to stay and food to eat.

"I'm so happy I'm here," said 50-year-old Naw Saw Mu, who fled from a village near Taungoo after being forced to work without pay and seeing surrounding villages being burned down by the government army.

After enduring weeks of living in the jungle, surviving on scant food and in constant danger of landmines, she arrived at Umpium camp last year.

"It's just so good to be safe," she said.

But other people, who have been cooped up in the camps for longer, are frustrated that they cannot leave to find work in nearby Thai towns.

map
"I can't move freely. I feel like I'm under house arrest," said 30-year-old The The.

Many of these refugees will eventually get the chance to resettle in a third country, but most of them just want to live like normal citizens in Thailand.

"I've been here for 18 years, and I speak Thai," said 44-year-old Sa Thu Mway. "I just want to get a plot of land somewhere, so I can build a house and grow food for my family."

Evading the authorities

Of course there are plenty of Burmese who do live freely in Thailand - but for many of them, this freedom comes with the risk of being deported.

These people are mostly economic migrants, who are ineligible for refugee status even if they wanted it.

I've seen migrants deported in the morning, who are back in Mae Sot for lunch
Ko Phyo, Yaung Chi Oo
An estimated 50% of Mae Sot's 80,000 Burmese migrant workers do not have proper work permits. According to Ko Phyo, this leaves them open to abuse from unscrupulous bosses, most of whom run garment factories.

"Sometimes bosses pay less that the legal Thai minimum wage, or withhold payment altogether," said Ko Phyo. "There are also cases of physical abuse and rape."

Factory owners are not the only people to benefit from the migrants' illegal status. Thai police and immigration officials regularly extort bribes from people anxious to avoid being deported, Ko Phyo said.

"They even ask for people's cash and phones on the street," he said.

If the worst happens, and a migrant gets deported, there are two possible options.

In most cases, the Thai authorities merely cross the nearby bridge to Burma and leave the person there. On payment of a small bribe to the Burmese authorities, the migrant can come straight back again.

"I've seen migrants deported in the morning, who are back in Mae Sot for lunch," said Ko Phyo.

Umpium refugee camp
Refugee camps provide food and safety, but also confinement
Most Burmese migrants have faced this kind of deportation frequently.

"I've been deported five times and I'm not scared any more. I just come right back," said 24-year-old garment worker Chit Htwe.

Deportation gets more serious when the migrant is handed over to the Burmese government. That happened to Ko Phyo himself, and his friends and colleagues had to raise 300,000 Baht ($8,300) to prevent him being jailed.

A group of men from Arakan state, one of Burma's poorest regions, fear this is what may have happened to their colleagues.

Desperate to leave home, they sold their possessions and bought a boat, which they sailed from the provincial capital Sitwe to the Thai coastal town of Ranong. There they were arrested and brought to Mae Sot, from where they were deported back to Burma.

Half the group were handed to border guards, who soon let them go back to Thailand, but they fear the other half were handed over to more senior officials, as they have not seen them since.

In the murky world of Mae Sot, many such disappearances go unsolved. But despite the dangers, every year more and more people stream across the border looking for work, asylum or both.

And every year they make the area around Mae Sot more and more Burmese.

In the next piece in the series, Kate McGeown looks at the Karen rebel army and whether it stands a chance against the Burmese government.


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