Aid Workers Call for Millions in Donations for Fire-Ravaged Burma Refugee Camp

By Saw Yan Naing 25 March 2013

More than 2,300 refugees who became homeless when fire destroyed their shelters in Mae Surin refugee camp, in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, have received immediate assistance but need supplies to rebuild their homes.

The fire that broke out in the isolated refugee camp on Friday destroyed about 400 houses made of bamboo, wood, and roofed with dried leaves, before it was brought under control on Saturday.

On Monday, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium put out a call for 13 million Thai baht (US $444,000) in donations to rebuild the camp.

The blaze—reportedly caused by a cooking accident—killed at least 35 people and injured dozens more.

A Karenni schoolgirl, Eliza, a volunteer delivering aid to the victims, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that some 36 people died in the blaze.

An estimated 400 houses were reduced to ash. The more than 2,000 refugees made homeless are sheltering in accommodation set up by the Thailand Border Consortium and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Eliza said that the fire spread quickly because it was hot and windy in the camp.

The fire trapped the victims and encircled them.

Located in an isolated region, there are no modern fire extinguishers in the camp. Residents normally use buckets of water and sand to put out any fires.

Vivian Tan, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that her organization has provided immediate assistance, such as blankets and plastic sheeting for temporary shelters to the victims.

“For now, the focus is the immediate assistance. In the medium term, this camp is run by the [Thai] government. So I think the government will probably do some kind of planning of how to rebuild the shelters,” said Vivian Tan.

Mae Surin refugee camp housed about 3,500 refugees who fled from Burmese government military offensives in Karenni State, eastern Burma. Mae Surin is one of nine Burmese refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.

According to the UNHCR report, a local clinic and distribution center at the camp were also razed in the blaze. With the cooperation of Thai authorities and local camp committee leaders, the International Rescue Committee and International Committee of the Red Cross has also offered assistance for the victims.

Sally Thompson, the director of the Thailand Border Consortium, a humanitarian agency said: “At the moment, they have plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, and mats. The immediate assistance is sufficient. But, they will need assistance for reconstructing [their homes].”

“We will need to provide all construction materials again … everything to reconstruct new houses.

“Before that assistance is provided, the debris in the burnt areas will be cleared where the new buildings will be built,” said Thompson.

According to the Bangkok Post, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra asked the Interior Ministry, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department and the armed forces to set up an emergency center to ensure sufficient food, drinking water, medicine and clothing will be supplied to the refugees.

Deputy Interior Minister Chatt Kuldiloke and ministry officials also visited the camp on Saturday to oversee the establishment of temporary shelters and the provision of medical treatment.

There are about 150,000 refugees who live in the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. Most of them are ethnic Karen who fled home due to civil wars in their hometown.