Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA project officer, Zoë Bedford, blogs about the Umpiem Mai refugee camp fire and how donated funds are being used to aid the recovery process.
I distinctly remember the moment I received the phone call on Thursday 23rd February 2012 telling me that there was a fire raging out of control in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp on the Thai Burma border. My blood went cold and I immediately thought the worst – that there would be a large loss of life. Thankfully that was not the case, however, the loss of people’s homes and property - people who have already experienced loss when forced to become refugees – is extremely concerning.
As the Thai Burma border project officer, I have been to the Umpiem Mai refugee camp and the other camps that house the more than 160,000 Burmese refugees living on the border between Thailand and Burma. Each camp has its own character, but in many ways they are so very similar. Two of these similarities are devastating should a fire break out.
The first way that the camps are similar is their close and cramped conditions. Unlike a regular hillside village, the houses and buildings in the camps are very crowded with virtually one neighbour on top of the next. As we have seen with the Umpiem fire, living so close to ones neighbours means fire can spread quickly and effect thousands of people in a very short amount of time.
The second similarity has to do with the building materials that the refugees are allowed to use. Even though the camps have been in Thailand for more than 20 years – since the 1988 uprisings in Burma – Thai authorities insist that the camps do not become ‘permanent’ structures. This means that all of the houses are made from bamboo and grass thatch. Very few buildings, such as the camp rations store and health clinic, can even have a concrete base.
Most houses in the camps are very basic structures with a communal living and sleeping space for the family and a place for storing clothes and personal items like schoolbooks and cooking utensils. The only other room will be an area for cooking. People in the camp share communal toilet blocks.
Fortunately, the fire on the 23rd of February was contained relatively quickly and there was no loss of life. But much damage had been done.
It has been confirmed to Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA that 2,800 people (566 families) were directly affected by the fire, losing their homes and most or all of their belongings. A further 350-400 families (approximately 2,000 people) living in close proximity to the fire also require shelter and support after their houses were demolished or de-roofed to create the fire break which slowed and eventually prevented further spread of the fire.
In the Umpiem Mai camp, we have worked with our partner, the Karen Women Organisation (KWO), for many years, proving capacity building training to women in areas such as financial management; human rights; income generation skills; women’s protection; health and education; and sexual and gender-based violence training.
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters and the Australian trade union movement, we pleased to report that we have been able to provide to KWO over $16,000 to assist with the Umpiem fire recovery effort.
KWO have been working with other organisations in the camp to coordinate the relief needed. Items required range from basic food and shelter to non-food household items such as cooking goods, clothing, mosquito nets, blankets and sleeping mats and stoves. Camp infrastructure was badly damaged with water pipes damaged, several communal latrines destroyed and two nursery schools burnt down. Maintaining hygiene and containing outbreaks of diseases, such as diarrhoea, is also a major concern.
Together with a larger international organisation, the Thai Burma Border Consortium, KWO have decided to focus on the shelter needs of those affected by the fire.
Most families have now moved back to the site of their original home and are living under plastic tarpaulins and other salvaged materials. The families have assisted in cleaning up the debris and re-stabilizing the soil in preparation for rebuilding.
Two standard building sizes have been developed based on Sphere shelter standards and local contexts, with a maximum floor space of 28m² for houses accommodating up to 5 people, and 39m² for 6 or more people.
The construction of these new homes has also began in earnest with the main building materials – bamboo, eucalypt poles, thatch roofing and nails – being procured and delivered. It is estimated that over 120,000 bamboo poles will be required as well as 18,000 eucalypt poles, 170,000 units of grass thatch and 4,500 kg of nails.
NGOs and camp committees are helping to prioritise the rebuilding of homes for the most vulnerable and are arranging construction teams to help.
While it is great to see people’s homes and lives being rebuilt, it is sobering to recognise that because of the Thai authorities insistence that the camps be ‘non-permanent’ there is little the camp’s inhabitants can do to mitigate against a reoccurrence of such a tragic event.
Knowing as I do the spirit and will to survive of the people on the Thai Burma border, I know that this camp and these people will be able to recover from this fire. Many people in this camp have left burnt and charcoaled lands once before – their homes and villages in Burma, which are often burnt down by the Burmese Army to force people off their land. Many people in this camp have already escaped war and fighting and the very worst of terrors. If those experiences couldn’t break their spirit, neither will this fire.
This appeal has now closed. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA would like to thank everyone who contributed in such a timely and generous manner.