Where and how can unrecognized refugees from Burma in Thailand be themselves?

By Ursula Cats and Allegra Palmer January this year, a concrete wall collapsed in Pathum Thani, Thailand, severely injuring Charlie Tiyu, a man from Burma who lives in Thailand as an undocumented migrant worker. He broke his left hip and suffered internal injuries, including a crushed large intestine and a bruised bladder. And yet, his injuries were not the biggest of his concerns.

At the hospital, the staff soon discovered his background and found out that his work permit had expired. The hospital turned him over to Thai immigration authorities who, despite Charlie’s injuries, made plans to deport him. He was transferred to the Police General Hospital where he was kept behind bars shackled to his bed1.

Charlie’s case demonstrates the insecurities undocumented migrant workers face. His situation changed dramatically once the Thai government found out about his illegal status. Where he was first treated nicely, after this discovery he was discriminated, imprisoned for weeks and on the verge of deportation. Only after human rights organizations filed complaints successfully did Charlie get a chance to defend his case. In Thailand unrecognized refugees from Burma like Charlie are forced to negotiate their everyday lives while facing discrimination and the constant threat of being discovered and deported.

Unrecognized refugees from Burma often express the pressure that security issues bring upon them in relation with their wish to preserve their ‘culture’. ‘In situations of forced migration, ‘culture’ is often revalued and particularly cherished by migrant communities. One of the most common issues for migrants is striking a balance between the preservation of that ‘culture’ and assimilation into the local one.

However, for unrecognized refugees from Burma in Thailand, the situation is more complicated. Their illegal status forces them to hide their ethnic background because of security concerns and fears of being deported. They must strike a very different balance: expressing one’s cultural identity and survival.

Concerns for their own personal security force many people from Burma to hide their cultural identity in Thailand. Fears over being deported make it impossible for them to wear traditional clothing or celebrate their culture in public. A young illegal migrant woman explained: “When I want to go to the temple I cannot wear my longi, because if the police sees me, they will know immediately where I am from. I will take my clothes with me in a bag, go to the temple, look around if there is no police and if so I will change into my traditional dress. When I leave I will change back into my ‘normal’ clothes. Often police will be waiting outside the temple on a festival day and they arrest many people, if we are not careful enough.”

These security risks make many see assimilation as not simply a choice but the only way to survive. A Shan (ethnic group in Burma) community leader said: “Now we live in Thailand, but we must not fight with the people we are living with. We have to be able to adapt to the culture where we live. If we don’t assimilate with the people we live with, there will be confrontations and misunderstandings.”

But unrecognized refugees survival in Thailand depends on their ability to adapt to a community that is hostile towards them. The authorities label people from Burma as alien workers and illegal migrants which creates discrimination. Nang Lao, an illegal migrant, notes: “It is difficult to adapt here in Thailand we are not treated in a nice way.”

Policies and public discourse make life for people fleeing Burma to Thailand very complicated. The need to hide cultural identity because of security issues creates an internal struggle and a strong urge to protect what is “left behind” in their country of birth. Living every day lives under these circumstances is stressful and complicated. However under these circumstances their spirit is tremendously strong, as proven by Kham Yin, a young unrecognized refugee woman: “I am not afraid. I do many good things so good things will return to me.”

Ursula Cats is the founder of the We women foundation located in Chiang Mai Thailand. We women is dedicated to promoting equality in Burma by empowering unrecognized women and their communities through higher education.

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