Seeking Refuge, Forced into Rubbish

By Jacques Maudy 7 January 2013

MAE SOT, Thailand—Near this tidy town in north Thailand, children gather on towering mounds of garbage at a dump—sorting through plastic, glass and garments as flies buzz around their knees. It’s nearly 3 am and the children, undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, have been working for about 13 hours to help their families collect trash, which they will sell for about 4 baht (12 cents) per kilogram to a nearby factory. They live here at the dump, and in a full day’s work they’ll be lucky to earn about 90 cents.

As Burma receives praise for economic and political reforms inside the country, an estimated 1 to 3 million undocumented migrant workers continue to live in Thailand, hiding in border towns such as Mae Sot after fleeing from decades of conflict between Burma’s former military junta and ethnic minorities. Of these, about 250 stay in the Mae Sot dump, paying 300 baht for the right to live there and exclusively sell their sorted garbage to the factory owners, who make a profit on the plastic, glass and garments by inflating prices in town. They cannot go to town themselves due to the risk of arrest or deportation. “My future is lost, my children’s future is lost,” a 65-year-old Burmese from Rangoon, said last month. “We are like dogs, except that we can cook for ourselves.”

Despite efforts by reformist President Thein Sein, NGOs in Thailand agree that conditions for the safe return of those Burmese to Burma have not yet been met. Though Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has signed ceasefires with most major ethnic armed groups, many ethnic states remained heavily militarized and residents continue to report human rights abuses at the hands of soldiers. War is actually escalating in northern Kachin State, and business ventures such as mining developments continue to displace thousands of people in other areas. As a result, although Burma’s government is opening up to the world, it seems hope is still a long way away for people at the Mae Sot dump.