Friday, February 6, 2009

Jolie visits camp for refugees from Myanmar

Angelina Jolie UN Goodwill Ambassador

BANGKOK (IHT-AP): Angelina Jolie's day job is acting, but since 2001 she has been playing another real-life role: advocate for the world's refugees. This week she took her show to Thailand.

As a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, she is trying to leverage her celebrity status to put the spotlight on refugees from military-ruled Myanmar, including boat-people from that country's Rohingya minority.

The Rohingya, denied citizenship in their native land, recently drew the world's attention when boatloads who tried to land in Thailand after a treacherous sea journey were towed back to sea and cast adrift by the Thai Navy. Indian officials, who rescued some, believe hundreds perished.

But the Rohingya, from western Myanmar, represent just a part of Myanmar's refugee exodus.

For decades, hundreds of thousands of others — most from other ethnic minorities — have fled by land across the country's eastern border to Thailand, which has accorded most sanctuary.

Most are civilians caught up in fighting between Myanmar government troops and ethnic insurgents. Faced with the risks of war, many flee to Thai refugee camps, where they are cooped up for years on end with little chance of resettlement in third countries and scant incentive to return to their homes.

On Wednesday, Jolie slapped a bright blue U.N. baseball cap on her head and toured the bamboo huts making up the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, home to 18,111 mainly ethnic Karenni refugees, just two miles (three kilometers) from the Myanmar border, near the northern Thai town of Mae Hong Son. There are between 116,000 and 135,000 refugees in total at camps along the border.

Jolie, 33, sat down in a two-room house on stilts and talked with a female refugee, according to an account of the visit given Thursday in a press release by the U.N. refugee agency. She then met orphans at a boarding school and heard from teenage girls worried that they might be sent back to Myanmar

Jolie asked one 26-year-old woman, Pan Sein, whether she was afraid when she made her perilous journey last year from her home village in Myanmar's Kayah State.

"Yes, I was scared," Pan Sein replied. "It was dangerous to flee, but even more dangerous to stay in my village."

It can also be dangerous in the camp. Ban Mai Nai Soi was attacked by the Myanmar military in 1996, 1997 and 1998. There was fighting just across the border in 2005, and land mines spot the surrounding area.

Jolie is no stranger to the area. She visited one of the other refugee camps along this border in 2004 on another of her missions that have taken her to more than 20 countries to comfort the unwanted.

"I was saddened to meet a 21-year-old woman who was born in a refugee camp, who has never even been out of the camp and is now raising her own child in a camp," Jolie said. "With no foreseeable chance that these refugees will soon be able to return to Burma (Myanmar), we must find some way to help them work and become self-reliant."

Jolie also raised her voice on behalf of the even more neglected Rohingya, whose status is much more precarious than the refugees at these border camps. The UNHCR was only recently able to gain access to 78 being detained in southern Thailand who arrived after a dangerous journey through the Andaman Sea.

Thailand recognizes most at the border camps as refugees with legitimate fear of returning to their homeland, but does not accord the Muslim Rohingyas the same status, and seeks to send them away.

"Visiting Ban Mai Nai Soi and seeing how hospitable Thailand has been to 111,000 mostly Karen and Karenni refugees over the years makes me hope that Thailand will be just as generous to the Rohingya refugees who are now arriving on their shores," Jolie said.

"I also hope the Rohingya situation stabilizes and their life in Myanmar improves so the people do not feel the desperate need to flee, especially considering how dangerous their journey has become," she added. "As with all people, they deserve to have their human rights respected."

Other Rohingya boat people have turned up in Indonesia. Thailand has proposed a regional consultation to come up with a solution to their plight.


On the Net:

Jolie's work for UNHCR:


Thailand Burma Border Consortium:

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


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