Thursday, August 20, 2009

Refugees of the Maepa Rubbish Dump

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT, Thailand — Burmese refugee families have lived for years around a trash dump in Mae Sot, but with free medical care and free education for their children, it’s not all bad.

Many families have tried to return to Burma, but most came back to Mae Sot because the life was better. Still, they struggle daily, their wages are miniscule and their humble homes are periodically torn down by Thai authorities.

Burmese refugees sort through rubbish at the Maepa trash dump in Mae Sot. (Photo: Arkar Moe/ The Irrawaddy)

"I had decent pay before,” said 28-year-old Soe Win, as he washed a frayed jacket he found in the rubbish dump. “But now it’s hard to survive.”

An illegal migrant worker, he has worked around the trash dump for three years, ever since he came from Shwe Kyin Township in Burma to find a job in Thailand.

The Irrawaddy interviewed Burmese refugees who live around the Maepa trash dump in Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak Province, only a few kilometers inside the Burmese-Thai border.

"There are 287 people here on the resident list. I came here eight years ago. In the past, I earned more than 100 baht per day. Most of people here get only 50 or 65 baht per day,” said Myint Aye, who works in the rubbish dump.

“This recycling factory was opened in May 2009, and there are about 26 workers,” he said. “We get only 2 baht for one kilogram.”

Myint Aye said the residents around the dump have problems with the Thai police who come into the area to remove homes in the spring of each year.

“Now, we all are worrying about it,” he said. “Thai authorities won’t even allow people to build huts here.”
Even so, there are about 70 houses and 290 people live around the rubbish dump, most Burmese or ethnic Karen, he said.

A 42-year-old woman, Than Myint, said: “I came here from Magwe Township two years ago. There are nine members in my family. Only three people work, but, we can survive here. Now I get at least 50 or 60 baht a day because the plastic recycling factory set up near us.” She said her makeshift hut was destroyed last year by authorities, and her bicycle confiscated.

She tried to return to work in Burma, she said, but faced more difficulties and went into debt. She returned, and things are better here, she said.

Makeshift dwellings around the trash dump are razed by Thai authorities annually. (Photo: Arkar Moe/ The Irrawaddy)

“We can get free health care and an education for our children,” she said. “We only need to pay a 50 baht school fee per year.”

The School Clinic or the Mae Tao Clinic, founded and directed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, provides free health care for refugees, migrant workers and other individuals who cross the border from Burma.

The dump ground community has a small school, built with the help of the Thai government and donor agencies.

Aung Zaw Oo, the headmaster of Moo (6) School, said: “Our school started in 2005 with the help of the World Education Center (WEC) and the Ministry of Education. Now, there are seven teachers and 92 students from kindergarten to grade five. We plan to expand to grade seven. We teach subjects about Myanmar, science, geography, English and mathematics. The Thai language is taught three times a week.”

A nongovernmental group, “Children on the Edge—New Zealand” helps to support the school with material and funding. The humanitarian agency was founded in 2006 to work on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable children from Burma.

Nan Aye Phyu, a Karen teacher, said, “I think our students get a better education here than children inside Burma.”

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