Monsoon in Mae La

Maximillian Morch writes about how local community organizations in refugee camps mitigate natural disasters but face cuts.

A few months ago, widespread flooding from the start of this year’s monsoon caused havoc in refugee camps on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar. The flooding destroyed homes, community buildings and schools. Now the disaster response is almost complete, with civil society and donors providing resources for emergency relief. Yet now, as the waters have subsided, a new question has emerged, when the immediate disaster rescinds and when disaster response has ceased: who will continue the longer-term work of rebuilding from the floods and mitigating future damage from the rest of the monsoon? In the 9 camps along the Thai/Myanmar border, it is the refugees themselves who have been managing their own disaster response and disaster risk reduction strategies— and they have been doing so for decades.


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Mae La Oon relocation to Pway Baw Loo (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

Within 36 hours of the floods breaking out in Mae La camp, the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) had conducted a needs assessment and found the number and location of all affected households[1].  Then a public appeal was issued, all less than 2 days after the floods first arrived. The fact that such a list was collated by refugee committees and done so swiftly is no mere coincidence.

Every year, the monsoon, blown in from the Andaman Sea and over the Dawna mountain range, raises a particular set of challenges and natural disasters for camp inhabitants.  Flooding increases during the rainy season, as do landslides.  With high levels of standing water in the camps, outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as malaria and dengue are common. Yet, with the camps having been here since 1984, refugees have established well-run camp management committees to oversee all aspects of camp life, including disaster response/management. Local knowledge and agency is successfully utilized through these local committees and groups.

MAX 4 Karenni Site 2 aka Ban Mae Surin - House foundations dislodged from erosion_ flooding_Miles Jury
Karenni Site 2 aka Ban Mae Surin: House foundations dislodged from erosion flooding (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

“Refugees organize their own shelter working groups to monitor landslide prone hills, vulnerable households and construction standards. Similarly, while foreign agencies provide funds and expertise, refugees provide almost all of the community health care, water supply and sanitation services in camps”, Sally Thompson, Executive Director of The Border Consortium (TBC), the main provider of food, shelter and other forms of support to refugees in Thailand states.[2]

It is in disaster mitigation efforts, particularly those longer term, where the agency of refugees becomes most apparent. According to Aung Kyaw Myint, a refugee in Mae La and a Camp Community Volunteer[3], the refugee community works with international organizations to mitigate risk, building walls to limit damage from landslides, planting trees in forestry initiatives to prevent soil degradation and dealing with issues of access, crucially important in the monsoon season when roads are washed away.

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Landslide demolishes home (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

One of the most important mitigation effects have been in relation to fires.  While fires have previously ravaged the densely packed camps, such as in 2013 and 2014, KRC holds annual trainings and assessments on fire safety, ensuring all households have basic firefighting equipment and are aware of basic fire safety practices and techniques. These include but are not limited to: the provision of bags of sand and water, to douse over outbreaks of fire, and the placement of long bamboo poles with hooks to destroy roofs and stop the spread of fire. Here the management of DRR by refugees, for refugees, has paid out dividends.  The size, severity and number of outbreaks of fire have reduced with such responses to fires being timely and efficient, as was the response to last June’s flooding.

Thomson, explains, “Refugees maintain a leading role in the management of day-to-day life in Thailand’s border camps.”[4] This level of agency and autonomy is substantial. The literature and body of evidence surrounding the camps backs these claims up. A 2014 study found that, “refugees have been afforded a relatively high degree of self-governance and the extent of community governance in Thailand is repeatedly highlighted as something perhaps uniquely impressive about these camps”.[5]

Here, outside agencies provide financial and technical assistance, as well as capacity building, to increase self-sufficiency and help local managers who already have the expertise required, to develop best practices. Such agencies fill a gap in giving refugees the means and resources to help themselves. There is a resource gap, not a knowledge gap, as there is no shortage of skilled local personal able to take on camp management. Along the border, the role of NGOs has been to strengthen the refugees’ capacity and build on their pre-existing Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) knowledge, such capacity building is done in well-run and well-established committees, such as the KRC which manages seven camps along the border and importantly is run by refugees for refugees.

MAX 6 Site 2 - Repairing the only access road to the camp after a landslide_Miles Jury
Repairing the only access road to the camp after a landslide (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

One of the reasons for the success of these committees is the incorporation of  local knowledgedefined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in a policy note as “the basis of community coping practices that have helped vibrant communities survive natural calamities over centuries”, into DRR policy.  This knowledge is inherent in community governance structures. Local actors should not be just a part of disaster response, but rather they should be integral to it, and have conditions created to allow them to utilize their long-standing, experience, knowledge and network.   It is crucial for these local resources to be utilized and not overlooked.These committees were formally established in the years following 1984, shelters that had sprung up on the western border of Thailand following continued and sustained offensives by the Tatmadaw became formal camps, recognized by the Royal Thai Government. The committees themselves grew from existing societal and community structures that travelled with the refugees themselves, eventually becoming consolidated in the current camp management system. The number of refugees soon grew and has remained relatively constant at around 100,000 the last decade. The often reluctantly provided assistance from the Thai government, which initially hoped the refugee issue would be a temporary issue and did not want to provide incentives for refugees to cross the border, led to a natural creation and nurture of self-reliance, of which TBC has helped fund.  Camp committees are coordinated by sector: there are sectors for health, education, security, WASH and more. They are also in charge of the distribution of rations, the distribution of information to those inside the camp and running and facilitating workshops held by international organizations. [6] This structured approach to delegation of DRR, disaster response and general management responsibilities have brought large rewards. Indeed a large 2012 study found that, “The experience of the camp management system in the refugee camps along the Thai border shows that refugee management structures can work.”

Importantly, they have been utilized in mitigation and preparation. After all, immediate disaster response and subsequent recovery are an important part of the disaster cycle, the ongoing process through which actors plan the preparation for, reaction to and subsequent recovery from disasters. Response and recovery are no more vital than the other two phases in the 4 stage cycle, mitigation and preparedness. These other two phases are long term processes, and while they are often done with much less fanfare and resources, they are just as important as immediate relief if future disasters are to be averted.

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Mae Ra Ma Luang storm damage (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

And yet, while the management of DRR responsibilities by refugee committees has been a relative success, it would be disingenuous to portray the situation in the camps solely in a positive manner due to the increasingly precarious funding situation for the camps.

In the last few years, funds have dwindled from these camps, with many, donor agencies included, feeling the time is ripe for repatriation.  Aid reduction is a very real threat, not just to the livelihoods of refugees but also to their effectiveness in dealing with natural disasters.  It is impossible to highlight the agency of refugees, without also highlighting the very real impact that aid reduction has, and will continue to have, on the camps and their ability to respond to natural disasters.

These camps do not exist in a political vacuum and their long-term existence is threatened by Myanmar’s own political developments. The election of the NLD in 2015 and the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement the same year have led many donor agencies to champion repatriation as the sole long-term solution to solve issues related to the camps. Yet enthusiasm for a return to Myanmar in the face of a faltering peace process, on-going domestic conflict, land confiscation and large-scale mistrust of the central government, remains low, with many refugees wishing to remain in the relative safety of the camps, despite the funding cuts.

Yet, the effect of these cuts can be catastrophic. If refugees are busy working, farming, or trying to supplement their meagre rations, they have less time available to dedicate to camp management. While funds remain available and can be relied upon for immediate disaster response, such as in the recent case of flash flooding, funds are not available for long term issues that are in desperate need of attention.

In an interview from their Mae Sot office, Hayso Thako from KRC explains, “From 2015 onwards, we started facing some funding cuts. We had to reduce our camp management staff. For a big camp like Mae La, it is very challenging to respond to.”[7]

A reduction in the number of trained, experienced personnel has a negative effect on the ability of KRC, and the camps as a whole, to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate disasters. It is quite simple: these cuts are placing lives and livelihoods at stake, and are doing so both in disaster and in non-disaster contexts. The scale of funding cuts have affected day to day life and the availability of rations, whilst also, due to deceased management and personal funding,  making the camps more vulnerable to the effects of any future disasters.

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Mae La Oon relocation (Image courtesy of Miles Jury)

Cultivating the creation of a culture of DRR is hard when rations are being cut for camps, and many feel that they are being forced into accepting repatriation to Burma. These cuts will only be detrimental to the development of long term development resilience strategies.  After all, why bother developing codes of conduct and mitigation measures for a soon-to-be empty refugee camp? Such actions taken by donor agencies to incentivize or push refugees into repatriation are directly at odds with the humanitarian obligations which such agencies represent. Any cuts severely threaten the agencies’ own ability to comply with the do no harm principle.

Yet, in the meantime, the cuts continue alongside the monsoon rain. This is worrying, as Hayso nervously asks: “A few days ago, we heard funding for admin will be reduced again. My concern is, if any new issues come up, who is now going to take care of them?”[8] It is a well-grounded concern. Funding cuts are almost as inevitable as the monsoon, and just as dangerous. While the camps in Thailand prove a fantastic example of the rejection of the narrative of refugees solely as victims, they can only continue to do so with long term funding.

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Mae La (Image courtesy of Aung Kyaw Myint)
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Mae La (Image courtesy of Aung Kyaw Myint)
[1] Hayso Thako, personal communication, 2018
[2]  Sally Thomson, personal communication, May 2018
[3] Aung Kyaw Myint , personal communication, June 2018,
[4] Sally Thomson, personal communication, May 2018
[5] McConnachie, K, Governing Refugees, Routledge, 2014, p. 92.
[6] McConnachie, K (2014), op.cit., , p. 84
[7] Hayso Thako, personal communication, July 2018
[8] Ibid.

Maximillian Morch is a British-born researcher and freelance journalist currently based on the Thai/Burma border. His articles have been published in the East Asia Forum, the Diplomat, Himal Southasian and many more. He holds an MA in Crisis Management from Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Crisis Management.