Tourists in Thailand Are Traveling to See Suffering Burmese Migrants

"This kind of tourism—it's not good to see," said one UN worker. "These are human beings, not animals in a zoo."

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Nov 10 2014, 5:00am

The entrance to an encampment near the Burmese border. All photos by Eloise Baro

In March of 2013, a section of the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp in Thailand burned down in a catastrophic fire. The refugees' huts sparked like tinder, and 37 people succumbed to the flames. Hearing of the disaster, sympathetic Western traveler—colloquially called "voluntourists"—showed up in droves, offering money and lending hands to clear the damage. A voluntourist encampment sprung up across from the charred remains of the refugee village. Despite its commitment to aiding migrants, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is decidedly against the growing fad of refugee tourism throughout Thailand, a country that boasts more than 20 million tourists a year, attracted by the country's pristine beaches and jungle highlands, as well as more than 130,000 refugees and half a million stateless people, many of them having fled the decades-long civil war in neighboring Burma. Some of the volunteers at Ban Mae Surin "were there starting up their barbecues, stripping down, and swimming in the river," recalled Iain Hall, of the UNHCR in Thailand. "It was disrespectful. This kind of tourism—it's not good to see. These are human beings, not animals in a zoo."

The following summer, I traveled to Thailand as a student and tourist myself. A military coup had taken place in May and, among many other things, had exacerbated the country's migrant situation. The Thai junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, had announced plans to start sending refugees back to Burma. Currently, the Thai and Burmese governments are beginning to discuss repatriation programs while the Thai junta tightens refugee-camp security. Travel to and from the country's eight camps continues, but leaving to search for work beyond the communities' walls has become dangerous and difficult for residents. People in numerous camps, including Mae La, the country's largest—it was established 30 years ago outside a town called Mae Sot and is now home to about 50,000 refugees—will soon be asked to go back "home" to Burma, and if the government has its way, the encampment may close altogether within a matter of years. If anything, the need for the international community to pay attention to these camps is greater than ever.

A view over the riverside encampment

After an onerous, twisting bus ride from Chiang Mai, one of the most popular tourist spots in Thailand, I arrived one night in Mae Sot, about 35 miles from the Mae La camp. Famished and drenched from the rain, I headed straight to a café and arts cooperative called Borderline, which provides jobs for refugee women, as well as a market for their handicrafts. That night, the place was so packed with refugee children (Burmese Karen, by their telltale woven bags and the white clay paste spread onto their cheeks) that there was no place to sit down. A handful of expats excitedly circled about, setting up sound equipment on a makeshift stage. A 25-year-old American guy, clad in a muscle tee and sunglasses, jumped up on stage. "Good evening, Mae Sot!" he shouted theatrically, to the glee of his audience—his Karen students, it turned out, at a nearby school for migrants. The concert was ostensibly a showcase for the musical stylings of his pupils, but as far as I could tell it was his show, him wailing along to synth-y mall punk with the occasional student singing backup. "Man, I love performing in Thailand," he proclaimed as I scarfed down my curried potatoes. "We're rock stars up here, right, boys? And none of you even know what I'm saying!"

Later that night, I met a friend down the road at Exppact Café/Bar, a popular tourist haunt, owned by former political prisoners from Burma. "We started Exppact to generate income for ourselves, and to educate people about the situation in Burma," Thiha Yarzar, a former refugee and one of Exppact's founders, told me. The bar was filled with foreigners, mostly Western teachers and some aid workers, and a few Thai and Burmese patrons. Some of these expat teachers had been barred from entering their camps in recent months, a result of the coup's crackdown on unauthorized entry and exit from the camps. Their schools sat vacant, the teachers unable to teach. Though founder Yarzar has respect for many of the volunteers in Mae Sot, he's troubled by how well-intentioned aid funds are often spent. "Some people visit Mae Sot as tourists, and they see something and come back to Mae Sot with a pile of money. 'I will set up a migrant school!' they say. And then they get a big salary—and almost all of the money goes to their salary." As I finished my beer, Exppact's evening band, a trio of teachers with a Danish lead singer, started up, crooning their newest song, whose chorus, "Where were you during the coup?" mingled merrily with the crowd's chatter and the rain outside.

A Burmese Karen refugee sells crabs at her makeshift shop

I stayed the night at Picturebook Guesthouse, which provides lodging to tourists and volunteers while employing migrant youth to provide them with hospitality training. The guesthouse is run by Youth Connect, a nonprofit that prepares young refugees for the workforce, and the proceeds from Picturebook help fund Youth Connect's education programs. When I asked Youth Connect's director, Mickey Goggin, why the organization chose to build a guesthouse over some other businesses, he laughed: "This is Thailand, man!" The tourism industry has been strong since hippies began visiting the country in the 60s. "It's a reliable market. And even in tough times"—the recent political violence and coup, for example—"there's still a high demand."

The next morning, after speaking with so many people working with refugees and migrants, it occurred to me that I could sneak into a refugee camp myself—but for what real reason, I wondered, other than to say that I had? Part of me worried I was succumbing to the lust for exoticism in a foreign land, a been-there-done-that feather in my adventurer's cap. But I, like many tourists, also had a genuine desire to learn something about the history and sociopolitical dynamics of the place I was visiting, and to get closer to those dynamics than was possible in Mae Sot's expat bars. How to do this without turning a human being into a spectacle?

I boarded a covered-truck taxi north from Mae Sot, on the one north-south road that, cutting through the gentle green border hills, connects various tourist centers and passes by several large refugee camps. Two young men chewing betel nuts loaded bags of rice into the truck—headed, I later found out, for one of the camps. Next to me, a fellow northbound passenger kept falling asleep, laying her head on my shoulder until a pothole jolted her awake.

A refugee at the Friendship Bridge, which connects Thailand and Burma

Across from me sat a French couple clad in flip-flops and tank tops, resting against their rucksacks, the man jotting away in a notebook and his companion scanning through yesterday's photos. They were traveling north to Mae Sariang, they said, a hill-tribe region known for scenic views and cultural tourism. They told me that, a few days before, they had paid to visit a refugee encampment along the river border with Burma, just outside of Mae Sot, where ring-necked Kayan women with intentionally elongated spines pose for pictures and sell their wares. "We didn't stay long," the French woman said. "It felt really bad," her boyfriend added, "just sort of standing there, looking around."

As we spoke, Mae La appeared to our left, a fenced-in, dense collection of thatched roofs beneath towering green hills. Guards, newly instated by the junta government, stood at the access roads and by the random holes in the fencing. You couldn't really see people inside the camp, just the undulating mantle of thatch. Baro took out her camera and, after hesitating for a moment, began taking pictures.

I got off the truck, feeling emboldened to slip into a vast territory of migration that also held, for me, great moral uncertainty. But I was instantly stopped by the hiss of a guard, who waved his finger. No one in, no one out. I walked the perimeter for a while, relishing the fresh air and mountain vistas, then sat with the guards, who pitched rocks at stray dogs and laughed. After the last of the dogs had slinked away, the guards helped me flag down the next southbound truck toward Mae Sot. Even though they are part of an anti-immigrant junta, I was thankful to them in a way, not just for flagging me a ride but for helping me make my decision—to visit the camp, or not?

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