Dickson Hoo is 24 years old, a grade nine mathematics teacher and deputy principal at a mission school. He’s a bright young man who knows all his students by their first names. But instead of air-conditioned classrooms and computer screens, he teaches algebra on a donated blackboard using a ragged piece of chalk and his students jostle for a place on rough wooden benches, their feet dangling above a well-swept earth floor.
Dickson has lived and taught in Mae La refugee camp for the past five years. Mae La is the biggest of nine refugee camps peppered along the Thai border with Myanmar and is overflowing with about 50,000 traumatised, desperate people.
Dickson’s father Saw Tar Hoo is a pastor, a tall, solemn man who fled Rangoon with his wife Daisy and their children in 2006 to escape the brutal Burmese military regime. Dickson and his family belong to the Karen ethnic group, which has suffered at the hands of the Burmese government since the country’s independence from British rule in 1948.
The United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports over 90 per cent of Mae La’s refugees are of Karen ethnic origin and most have fled attacks in southeast Myanmar.
Dickson says his students, about 1,300 boys and girls ranging from 11 to 20 years of age, are some of the lucky ones.
“There are still so many children in the camp who cannot come to school because we simply don’t have any more room for them,” he says sadly.
He proudly shows me their small library with rough wooden shelves stacked with books donated from various NGOs. A young Karen girl is sitting in the corner, bent over her books. She’s busy studying for the end of year exams, although Dickson sadly admits that for most of his students there are no further opportunities once they’ve finished their schooling.
“Around one or two per cent of our students may have the opportunity to go to a third country with their families and of course, that’s what everyone here is hoping for,” he says.
Dickson’s elder brother, Nickson, was one of those fortunate to be accepted in the last round of the UNHCR’s resettlement program and now lives in the United States. His eyes light up as he tells me how he dreams of following his brother and finishing his own education at a western university.
“I want to get a good education, to become a qualified teacher then come back here to help my Karen people,” he said.
He had only just completed the second year of a mathematics degree at West Rangoon University in Myanmar’s former capital before being forced to abandon his studies, home and childhood friends when his family fled for the safety of the refugee camp.
Dickson says he tried to register himself and his family with Thai government and apply for the UNHCR resettlement program as soon as they arrived in Mae La refugee camp on Boxing Day, 2006 but was told by camp authorities the government was not taking on any new refugees. He’s confused and angry because of the conflicting information from camp authorities.
“In 2007, they told me to wait until 2010, I went back later and they said 2011. Now they’ve told me maybe we can register in 2013 or 2014.” One camp official told him to stop asking because the Thai government is not registering any more refugees.
“You’ll stay in this camp for the rest of your life," he told me.
Nobody has told Dickson that unless the UNHCR can convince the Thai government to reopen its refugee pre-screening and registration program, his future and that of almost 70,000 other displaced Burmese, is in limbo. Because his family arrived after the Thai government suspended its screening program in late 2005, he does not have official refugee status and therefore cannot apply for third country resettlement.
It also means he cannot leave the confines of the camp, go to a library, an internet café or nearby Mae Sot to buy supplies for his students because he does not possess an official UNHCR registration card, which is the only protection refugees have against arrest and detention by Thai authorities.
An aid agency, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), says almost 70,000 out of some 150,000 of residents across all nine camps are unregistered refugees and since 2005, new arrivals have not been registered.
The UNHCR opened its third-country resettlement program in 2005 in a bid to alleviate the congestion in the camps. Some camps, including Mae La, have been operating for more than 20 years. But TBBC reports show that despite the mass resettlement program, the population of the camps has remained constant as more and more displaced Burmese seek refuge from persecution in Thailand.
However, Dickson and many others hoping to start new lives in a third country do not realise that unless they were registered before 2005, they have no chance.
“There is no certainty, their futures are in limbo,” says TBBC deputy executive director Sally Thompson.
“We’re very concerned and we hope the Thai government will reopen the registration and pre-screening process in the camps because it’s currently making it very difficult for people.”
The Thai government, under pressure from Burmese authorities, recently announced a three-year plan to close down all nine refugee camps, giving vulnerable residents no choice but to return to the uncertainty and persecution from which they originally fled. But Dickson’s father is growing weary with the desperation and hopelessness of their situation.
“It’s like house arrest, we are prisoners here,” he says sadly, staring at the floor.
“The Thai authorities won’t allow us to leave the camp but we can’t go back to Burma because we will be killed.”
Nestled at the base of a looming mountain range which is all that stands between the Thai border with Myanmar, Mae La refugee camp bakes quietly in the heat of the December sun. Run by the Thai Ministry of Interior, the camp is surrounded by barbed wire and high bamboo fences topped with jagged spikes and a young man in uniform lounges in the sparse shade offered by a makeshift guard post.
A few hundred metres down the road at an official checkpoint, uniformed and armed authorities scrutinise the comings and goings of every vehicle and Burmese refugees caught without an official identity card face imprisonment and deportation.
But this hasn’t deterred a group of youths lounging defiantly by the side of the road, around the corner and out of sight of the Thai guards. Theirs is not the bright and shiny world of shopping malls, video games and cinemas.
Even if they did manage to hitch a ride some 60 kilometres to the sleepy border town of Mae Sot, avoiding the various police checkpoints along the way, with no money and no understanding of the Thai language, they would be targets for exploitation by unscrupulous employers who prefer Burmese workers because they can pay them less than a third of the usual going daily rate, around 60 Baht, or US$2 per day.
Dickson says while people know the dangers, some prefer to take their chances because they are desperate and have lost hoping waiting for help in the camp.
“Some people have been here 20 years... some have been resettled but so many of us are still here, waiting and wasting our lives.” “If I didn’t have my school... and my family here with me, sometimes I don’t know what I would do,” he says quietly.
“Of course we want to go home ... I want to see Burma, my country. But it’s not safe for us there.”
As a bell rings for the start of school, he squares his shoulders and follows a line of students inside the squat tin-roofed buildings for another day at High School Two, Mae La camp.