HI staff Noreen helps Djamila from Thailand learn to walk using a mobility device

Refugees in Thailand

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We became Humanity & Inclusion on 1/24/2018

For the past few decades, Thailand has been a major destination country for asylum seekers and refugees from Myanmar. Since 1984, Thailand has provided refuge to people fleeing violence in Myanmar, and more recently to economic migrants. The population in the Thai refugee camps, located along the Myanmar-Thailand border, is now estimated at 111,000 people. Many were born in the camps and have never set foot outside.

Most of the refugees in the nine camps are Karen people, an umbrella term that refers to a heterogeneous ethnic group without a shared language, culture, or religion. Since the 1940’s, ongoing violent conflicts between Karen separatists and the Burmese army have forced many families to move. Around 400,000 Karen people are homeless.

The living conditions in the camps are extremely poor. Drinking water is collected from wells and streams, and in the past, cases of cholera and malaria have occurred. Children suffer from chronic malnutrition and respiratory infections. 

Isolated and overcrowded

Most of the camps are isolated in the mountains and therefore hard to access. There’s no electricity grid and some camps have no phone service. Health care and education opportunities are extremely limited. In the rainy season, flash floods can cause damage to the infrastructure and even casualties.

Other camps, such us Mae La Camp–the largest refugee camp with more than 40,000 refugees–is an hour’s drive from Mae Sot, the nearest town. Health service providers and schools are more present, but the camps are overcrowded. The lack of room between the temporary houses, composed of bamboo and wood, has been the cause of many fires in the camp.

Restriction and mental illness

The life of the refugees is quite restricted because they usually cannot go out, and the Thai police might arrest them if they do. If adults want to earn money, they have to do it in secret outside the camps. Most of the refugees don’t take the risk. They rely heavily on the weekly food distributions and the humanitarian assistance provided by international NGOs and community-based organizations, which makes them feel dependent and bored.

Depression and alcohol addiction are very common among adult refugees, which puts their children at risk of neglect and malnutrition. Approximately half of the adults suffer from mental illness, which has led to a rising number of suicides.

This increase can partially be explained by the rumors that refugees will have to return to Myanmar. As the peace process continues, both the Myanmar and the Thailand government, as well as the United Nation Refugee Agency (UNHCR) encourage voluntary repatriation. But Karen refugees fear that the situation in their home country is not safe yet. Moreover, the idea of a ‘home country’ is for many a non-existent concept, since they were born in the camps. Growing up in the camps is the only life they have ever known.  

longing to be a child

Almost half of the population of the camp is under 18. Most children were born in the camp. They don’t have birth certificates and are stateless, which jeopardizes their future.

Besides difficult backgrounds, the poor living conditions listed above, and an uncertain future, children lack the opportunity to play. “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Children states that every child should have the right to play," says Cheryl Shin-Hua Yeam, regional technical coordinator of the Growing Together project. "Unfortunately, the right to play is often neglected."

“In Mae La Camp, children have no place or opportunity to play. Yet, play is a really important tool for them to be able to work through some of their issues and to be a child. For children with disabilities, it is even more difficult. A lot of them are hidden away, because places in the camps are simply not accessible if you’re in a wheelchair or if you need a walking device to assist you.”

“Our goal is to create spaces where children with and without disabilities–children of all kinds–can play and learn.” 


Growing Together is a four-year project in Thailand, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and is funded by the IKEA Foundation. Handicap International is creating inclusive spaces where children can come together–through play–to work through some of the challenges they face, especially children with disabilities. In addition to inclusive playgrounds, Growing Together will target the youngest children who are at risk of developmental problems. Simultaneously, the program will engage local child development service providers and help them become more responsive to the needs of boys and girls with disabilities and other vulnerable children. Learn more about the partnership.


Since 1984, Handicap International has worked along the border with Myanmar. The main activities are fitting refugees with locally-produced prostheses, rehabilitation services, empowering people with disabilities and social inclusion in local communities, and the prevention of mine accidents through risk education. Learn more about our work in Thailand.