In-depth: Myanmar’s refugees still on the run
MYANMAR-THAILAND: More refugees settle in a "strange new world"
U Nyi suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; his wife, Khin Htwe, has been diagnosed with chronic asthma, and their 13-year-old child, Ye’ Naing Aung, is disabled
UMPIUM, 28 April 2009 (IRIN) - Several blue and white buses of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are about to depart Umpium refugee camp of some 20,000 people in Thailand, close to the Myanmar border. The buses are filled with dozens of Burmese refugees who are beginning their resettlement journeys to countries as diverse as Australia, Norway, New Zealand and the United States. Most had fled Myanmar years, even decades, ago, fearing persecution and longing for a better life.
It is a scene that has been repeated hundreds of times since 2004 when the Burmese refugee resettlement programme first began. As of January 2009, some 43,000 have been resettled. Another 13,000 are expected to be resettled this year, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
In Umpium, relatives and friends crowd close to the bus windows; one man hands out Thai coins to his friend, not needing them any more.
Refugees who want to resettle are first identified by UNHCR and then individual countries decide who they will accept. IOM does everything from transporting the refugees for interviews, giving them a basic cultural orientation (how to change planes, use western-style toilets and kitchen appliances), to equipping them with "survival English" - key words and phrases to get them by as they enter a strange new world. Finally, it prepares the refugees for their travels and makes all flight arrangements.
All must receive medical clearance at the outset, and, according to Mohammad Razwari, an IOM physician, who conducts check-ups on the refugees at Pawo Hospital in Mai Sot, "The health assessment identifies any health problems or health risks as well as determining whether the patient is safe to fly and that they are not a health hazard to other travellers.
"If a patient has TB or psychological problems, he or she first receives treatment before resettlement," said Razwari. "Those with HIV/AIDS are provided awareness training. All those with medical problems receive adequate treatment first and then are allowed to depart."
Have skills, will travel
Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
|At Umpium refugee camp on the Thai border close to Myanmar, a group of Burmese refugees say their goodbyes
Not surprisingly, many of the resettled refugees are those most skilled and educated.
Tun Khin, who has been in Nupo camp - one of nine along the Thai/Myanmar border - with his family since 1997, told IRIN he expected to be resettled soon. Both he and his wife are medics, who were trained in 1999 by Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI), a French NGO in charge of the health sector in Mae La and other refugee camps.
"We have applied to be resettled in the United States and already have relatives there, in South Dakota. We want to go," he says, "because we want to give our children a good education."
However, according to Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR senior regional public information officer for Asia and the Pacific: "Some countries, like Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, actually seek out refugees with serious medical conditions. They do it strictly on humanitarian grounds."
There are others: U Nyi, 58, a former farmer from Mon State in Myanmar, is headed to the United States with his family.
Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
|As of January 2009, some 43,000 Burmese have been resettled in more than 11 countries
U Nyi suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTDS) following his involvement in the 1988 political confrontation with the Burmese government. He can hardly speak, according to IOM officials, and is heavily sedated. His 53-year-old wife, Khin Htwe, has been diagnosed with chronic asthma and their 13-year-old child, Ye' Naing Aung, has birth defects that have left him physically and mentally disabled.
Khin Htwe told IRIN, "My husband, U Nyi, has not worked since fleeing Myanmar. He is mentally unfit."
The US government selected the family for resettlement in the United States even before medical tests were conducted, according to IOM officials.
The US has taken in more than 14,000 border refugees since 2004 and says it welcomes even those families with serious medical needs. According to Tim Scherer, refugee coordinator in Thailand for the US State Department: "We accept Burmese for resettlement based on their legitimate refugee status and this includes even those with serious medical disabilities."
Khin Htwe told IRIN she looked forward to going to the US. "I chose America because the weather will be good for my health and as my son is often hospitalised, want to go somewhere where the medical technology is good," she said. "And I'll do whatever work it takes [to make ends meet] - perhaps gardening or farming."
Burmese refugees in Thailand