About 10,000 people are displaced and in hiding along the Thai-Burmese border, having fled artillery fire in eastern Myanmar where fighting between the Burmese military and armed groups is expected to continue for several months, aid groups say.
The Back Pack Health Worker Team, a Mae Sot, Thailand-based, NGO that provides healthcare to conflict areas of Myanmar, said the displaced were on both sides of the border and the situation was "highly unstable".
"These people are in hiding sites rather than in officially recognized temporary shelters or holding centres. Large numbers of displaced civilians have now been sent back into Burma [Myanmar], often several times, by Thai authorities," said Back Pack in a report released on 24 January.
The displaced were scattered in about 28 different sites, including makeshift camps in the forest, along the banks of the Moei river that separates Thailand and Myanmar, as well as in villagers' homes, according to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an umbrella group of 12 humanitarian organizations working with Burmese refugees.
"People are trying to take shelter where they can," Sally Thompson, the TBBC's executive director, told IRIN. "When people first came across because of fighting, they did go into official centres [designated by Thai authorities]. As soon as that fighting stopped, people were sent back, so now people are reluctant to go into them because it's thought that people are being returned prematurely."
Burmese troops have for decades waged war against armed ethnic groups, which have sought autonomy from the central government. The latest violence began after the 7 November elections, when tensions flared between government forces and armed ethnic groups that have refused to be incorporated into the country's centrally-controlled Border Guard Force.
After initial battles in the days after the election, there was sporadic conflict throughout December, according to a situation report from the Back Pack. Since 31 December, there have been almost daily skirmishes, it said.
"You've got different ceasefire groups being squeezed, and it's the Burmese attacking them, and they attack back, and until the border guard forces is resolved... we can expect to see these ongoing skirmishes, people coming across the border, back and forth, possibly through May," Thompson said.
Photo: Courtesy of Backpack Health Worker Team
|A scene inside Karen State where scores are displaced|
Because most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in hiding, it has been challenging for aid organizations to help those in need.
Furthermore, humanitarian groups are facing increasing restrictions and pressure has been mounting for the Karen civilians not to seek refuge in Thailand, Back Pack said.
"It's difficult to find where people are staying. We cannot register every person to find and provide them with assistance," said Mahn Mahn, secretary of Back Pack. "All the assistance needs to go through the Thai provincial and township level, but they do not want to allow civil [society] or NGOs to go through."
According to Thompson, most people are living in "very temporary" shelters, with only the basics for survival, including food and water, from local villagers, friends and local community-based organizations.
"At the moment, the understanding is that basic assistance is getting through to them," she said.
Meanwhile, Back Pack is calling on the authorities to allow the displaced to remain in Thailand for the moment.
"We request that civilians having fled the conflict on to Thai soil be allowed to remain in temporary shelters in Thai territory until it has been proven that it is safe for them to return... civilians fleeing armed conflict should not be returned to Burma unless this return is of a voluntary nature and an impartial assessment has determined that it is safe for them to return," a statement by the group said.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Thailand hosts 96,800 refugees from Myanmar who have been registered, and an estimated 53,000 who have not, in nine government-run camps along the border.