Wednesday, February 5, 2014
This was a very different day, as we were visiting the Thai Government offices for the first time since our arrival to Mae Sot. On our drive there, we saw hundreds of people carrying bags with their belongings; people selling food; people making lines; sad faces, confused faces. Many were going back ‘voluntarily’, others were crossing the Friendship Bridge for the day. In my lifetime, I’ve had many airport goodbyes, and they were never easy, but for these migrants the feeling must be so bitter. I have not been to Tijuana yet, but I can imagine that it must be something very similar to what deportees from Southern California experience when they are taken in a bus to the border.
We arrived to the meeting, which was more formal than all the others we had attended that week. There were personalized name tags in our seats; microphones and breakfast goodies were served to us by their staff. I felt a bit tense, uncomfortable and extremely conscious -especially about not using the terms refugee or refugee camp during this session. We were welcomed by Superintendent Dr. Nakornsantipap who invited us to enjoy the Burmese tea that we were sipping (it was delicious). We listened carefully to a presentation about the different operations that the Immigration Department of the Tak Province is involved in. Most of these had to do with transnational criminal networks -which, unfortunately, they had named according to the country of origin of their leader, contributing to the creation of stigmas around certain nationalities. Then, I was shocked to hear him talk about Austrialia’s Christmas Island as well as the USA’s attempt to build a fence with Mexico as part of their “lessons learned” and was surprised to hear that he would be visiting Southern California in April, so I extended him an invitation to meet with some of my colleagues that collaborate closely with law enforcement in anti-human trafficking work. He shared with us that he’s been part of a committee with UNHCR that is looking for ways to provide some status to the population fleeing conflict, but that the problem is that there are not enough countries that accept refugees. He feels that the only way to stop this problem is to have destination countries be open to receive them. If Thailand was part of the Refugee Convention it would mean more refugees coming and they can’t handle that burden.
After his presentation, we toured the facilities and saw the detention / processing center, where immigrants are held for less than a day while they await their transport back to Burma. We were told that NGOs like IOM and World Vision conduct the assessments / interviews in cases where there’s indication of possible human trafficking and that the Social Welfare department will handle the cases of minors and other victims.
Rights of Detainees in Thai, English and Burmese
Wednesday afternoon we traveled to the Labor Law Clinic of the Human Rights and Development Foundation, which was founded in collaboration with the Lawyers Council of Thailand and is partly supported by the American Center for International Labor Solidarity. This organization works in collaboration with Governments, NGOs, Social Security, Police, Labor Protection and Thailand’s Welfare Office to ensure that the workers rights are respected, regardless of their nationality. The clinic provides legal consultations to both Thai and migrant workers in Mae Sot; they facilitate capacity building of NGOs to promote human rights and train legal professionals and through all this they promote understanding between Thai and Burmese communities. I was yet again inspired by the courage and motivation of these young lawyers who had chosen public interest law as their career, in spite of the numerous difficulties in a country like Thailand.
The day ended up very differently, with a bike ride to Mae Sot Football Club with Langan and our interpreter Sia. That night, Erin and I joined a team of expats, Thai and Burmese girls of the NGO sector in a friendly soccer match (end result was 5:5). This was one of my favorite intercultural experiences of the field trip, as it allowed us to connect with locals through a fun activity. After the game, we biked to a delicious Burmese restaurant, together with fellows Dara and Stephen. Note that we only had 4 bikes, but there were 5 of us 🙂 so there was a couple riding tandem…
Post game dinner
Thursday, February 6, 2014
Thursday was dedicated to the International Organization for Migration (IOM): in the morning we met with two staff of their Labor Migration Program and discovered that the Field Coordinator for the Labor Migration and Counter Trafficking Program is an alumna of the Rotary Peace Center in Queensland, Australia! This was an excellent meeting that provided us a deeper understanding on the dynamics of the migrant population and the programs that IOM is conducting to serve them. One of the projects they are working on is called “Reducing vulnerabilities of Burmese Muslims through Community Outreach and Increasing Access to Social and Health Services” (self-explanatory) and the other major one is called “Addressing the risks and needs of vulnerable migrants in the Greater Mekong Sub Region and Malaysia”.
The afternoon session with IOM took us to their Refugee Processing Center, where refugees being resettled to the United States and Australia get their interviews, final cultural orientations and medical examinations. After a very informative presentation we toured the facility and saw some of the refugee children that were waiting for their parents to undergo the required panel physician examinations. At this time particular time only a small group of refuges is being processed to the United States, as there’s a backlog still from the Government Shutdown of October 2013.
Friday, February 7, 2014
The last visit of our field study was to Mae Tao Clinic, the famous border clinic started by a Burmese doctor called Cynthia Maung. It was a privilege to meet with Dr. Cynthia and to hear from her directly. It was a good way to close the week as it allowed us to see the many needs that this migrant community have and to contextualize more the migrant reality in the border.
We closed the field trip with a group reflection, centering exercise and individual reflection, which was a way to motivate us reflect more about the field study. For future field trips, I hope to see a component of service that can allow us to connect the theory learned in class with what we were seeing in the field (how agencies operate, etc). It was an amazing week and I’m in awe of the great work that so many humanitarians are doing in this border town. I hope to return soon!