Advocating for Disabled Refugees

Along the rugged western border of Thailand, more than 127,000 refugees and unregistered asylum seekers from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) live in nine camps with little or no contact with the outside world. 

Some refugees have been living in these camps for almost thirty years. Going home has not been an option for most. Even if they want to return, countless landmines lay hidden in the forest along the border and on return routes through Myanmar, posing a deadly threat to travelers. According to the Landmine Monitor, mines in Myanmar have claimed at least 3,242 victims since 1999.

Handicap International, which was founded in 1982 to assist Cambodian landmine victims in Thailand, began working with refugees from Myanmar in 1984. In January 2013, I visited the Mae La camp, which is an hour's drive north of Handicap International's base at Mae Sot. Sandwiched between mountains, the Mae La camp is the largest camp with almost 45,000 residents. While Mae La can be reached by road, the other camps can be two hours' drive from the road through the thick forest.

Mae La has a camp committee, a soccer field and volleyball courts, and almost everything is made from bamboo and wood. Handicap International had to get special permission to install a concrete floor in its workshop where it makes prosthetic limbs, orthotics, and other assistive devices.

I arrived on the day of the monthly food distribution and watched as men struggled under the weight of large sacks of rice; those who couldn't manage the loads would have their share collected by a designated caregiver.

I joined two staff members, Magataw and Tekatae, for a landmine risk education session during a home visit. Now that the political situation in Myanmar has improved recently, some residents of the camps may consider returning and are likely to pass through heavily mined areas on the way, which is why Handicap International began a landmine awareness campaign last November.

On the way to session, the staff worried about my ability to handle a ten-minute walk up a small incline, but none had any concern about Tekatae, who has a prosthetic leg. Both Magataw and Tekatae are camp residents. On arrival at a thatched house made of bamboo, we were ushered into the living room and up a flight of steep stairs. Armed with a ‘flip-book' that included series of illustrations on one side and an explanation for the trainer on the other, the staff reviewed what mine and other explosive ordnance might look like, what to do if you see dangerous objects, what to do if you find a landmine victim, and how you can minimize your risk when traveling. The audience of two men, three young mothers, their small children, and a grandmother were enthralled.

Back at Handicap International's rehabilitation workshop, the staff was busy. The center serves 400 people a year, including many people who had their limbs amputated after encountering landmines. Handicap International has trained camp residents to make quality prosthetics and orthotics from a combination of the old and new. Seven clients arrived that day, all with wooden prosthetics that needed to be replaced. One prosthetic leg had broken and was then inserted into a large piece of bamboo as an ingenious, if temporary, solution.

The center fits clients with more sturdy prosthetics made of rubber and plastic. The rubber feet come from a factory in Cambodia, and are then bolted to a piece of resin, attached to foam made from mixing two chemicals together, and then set to tailored plastic fittings. The legs are carefully shaped with a file and then painted the approximate the color of a leg. A fitting takes four days to complete. The center also provides therapy to help clients learn to use their new prosthetics and other adaptive devices.

Handicap International works with camp residents with other types of disabilities in a therapy room next door. During my visit, a five-year-old boy who couldn't speak or stand arrived with his father and mother and their newborn baby and younger daughter. Staff worked with the boy to assess his responsiveness to a ball and other toys. They also worked with the parents to draw up goals for their child and develop a rehabilitation program to help him meet those goals.

In a separate section of the camp, Handicap International staff was working with a self-help group for people with disabilities. Such groups are at the forefront of efforts to help people with disabilities better integrate with the greater camp community.  Other agencies are ready to include persons with disability in their projects but as our project manager, Woranoch Lalittakhom, explained many people with disabilities have such low self-confidence they are not prepared to take advantage of opportunities.

The self-help groups try to address this issue. Handicap International provided the groups with initial funding and training. One group used their seed money to establish a shop. Competition for sales in the camp is tough but the shop now provides employment for several group members and brings all members greater self-esteem as well as income. Group income is distributed among members with 10% set aside for management costs and 10% to provide assistance to members who need some extra help.

The disability groups played a key role in the organization of sporting and social events to mark International Disability Day on December 3. Group members also engage the camp council to ensure decisions include a disability perspective. One of the group members, a young man, was showcased in by Handicap International in a poster. His parents wanted the posters taken down, as they were worried about how this might affect his life. However, the young man was delighted and insisted the posters remain. As befits someone elected to the camp committee, he had the final say. Truly Handicap International has created a refuge for camp residents with disabilities. They have access to services which meet their needs and, most importantly, they know Handicap International staff will remain their advocates and friends in a time of uncertainty.

By Edward Winter, Director of Institutional Funding, Handicap International U.S.