Over 800 Burmese Refugees Affected by Two Fires

By Saw Yan Naing 2 January 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — More than 850 people have been directly affected by fires that broke out at two Burmese refugee camps in Thailand last week, destroying homes and leaving at least one person dead, aid agencies say.

The first blaze was reported at the biggest Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, known as Mae La camp in Tak Province, last Friday. The camp is home to than 40,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen people who fled armed conflict in Burma and have lived in Thailand for over two decades.

The second fire, on Saturday, was in Mae Hong Son Province at the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, largely home to ethnic Karenni refugees.

More than 850 people were directly affected by both fires, while 165 homes were destroyed and at least one person was killed, according to the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In a statement on Monday, it said the fire at Mae La camp destroyed some 130 homes, leaving one refugee badly burned. In the second fire, about 35 homes and community structures were damaged, and a 70-year-old woman died after being trapped in her home. Several other people were injured.

“We are deeply saddened by these tragedies,” Mireille Girard, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, said in the statement. “UNHCR is working with the government and other humanitarian partners to provide immediate relief to the victims and to help them back on their feet.”

Mike Bruce, a spokesman for the The Border Consortium (TBC), a humanitarian agency that has supported Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border since 1984, said Thai authorities were conducting an investigation into the fires because of the fatality.

“This needs to be completed before clearing and reconstruction can begin, but we are hopeful that this will begin within days,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

“The community began working together immediately to find temporary housing in the camp or in schools for those affected. Clearing of the damage began immediately and building supplies are already being received at Mae La.”

The governor of Mae Hong Son Province visited Ban Mai Nai Soi camp on Tuesday to distribute blankets to affected families.

About 130,000 Burmese refugees currently live in nine border camps in Thailand.

This is not the first time that camps have been hit by fires. In March last year, a massive blaze at Ban Mae Surin camp, also in Mae Hong Son Province, killed over 30 people and left 2,000 people homeless.

Girard of the UNHCR said training in fire prevention and response intensified after the March tragedy, but that fires have continued to break out and can be difficult to control because the camps are densely populated and surrounded by vast forests.

“We fear that more fires could break out as we have not reached the peak of the dry season yet,” she said in the statement.

At Mae La camp, the UNHCR has distributed 200 plastic sheets, 200 blankets and 200 plastic mats. The International Organization for Migration has transported blankets provided by the Karen Refugee Committee, a group representing refugees in the camps.

In Ban Mai Nai Soi camp, the UNHCR, local authorities and aid agencies such as TBC, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) are distributing plastic sheets, blankets, pillows, mosquito nets, clothing, cooking utensils, stoves and food to survivors who are now living with friends and relatives in the camp.