Thailand’s largest refugee camp, Mae La, is a dense, overcrowded city of over 43,000 people on the country’s border with Burma. Bamboo huts sprawl over hills, their dirt-floor interiors containing few possessions beyond NGO-issued goods like bags of rice and toothbrushes. Most refugees subsist on rice and pungent fish paste, but with declining concern from international donors over the civil war in Burma, the food rations in the camps have recently been cut, causing several riots. It’s the kind of place you only want to live in if you’re on your way to someplace better.
On one hill sits a hut that doesn’t quite fit in. Its roof, like the thousands around it, is made of thatched grasses and leaves, but its walls are gray-painted wood. Inside is what looks like a small but tidy bachelor pad that could be in London or Berlin or Milwaukee: appliances, an oven, a window, a bathroom, a fridge full of fruits, vegetables, and eggs. But the food is all plastic, and the toilet doesn’t work, and no one is really supposed to live here—it’s a simulator apartment, designed to get Mae La refugees accustomed to the modern-day amenities of Western living before they finally immigrate to any of a dozen countries that take in people fleeing Myanmar, including the US, Australia, Denmark, and Canada.
My guide to the apartment was a man I’ll call Saw Norman*, a 52-year-old Karen refugee who’s a member of one of the many ethnic groups whose rebel fighters spent decades at war with the government in Burma. Norman has been fleeing the conflict since he was eight—his parents moved from region to region, town to town. In 2006, by then with a family of his own, he braved the jungles and the minefields and fled across the border into Thailand. He's lived in Mae La ever since.
Norman moved around the simulator pointing out the different devices and how they work. For the tour, he was dressed in his finest; standing in the small kitchen in his crisp pink shirt, you'd never guess he was a refugee. But back at his bamboo hut, Norman and his family cook over an outdoor fire, fueling it with wood or charcoal; among their cooking staples are NGO-issue rice and fish paste.
“We call this a 'sink,' to wash the plates and then after we wash the plates, we dry the plates and we arrange them on the plate shelf,” he told me.
Despite his enthusiasm, Norman has never used many of the apartment’s devices in real life, and likely won’t get a chance to. Despite his English skills and a strong desire to move his family to a country where his children can get a good education, Norman won’t be eligible for resettlement in the foreseeable future. The year before he arrived in Mae La, the Thai government largely stopped registering any new arrivals from Burma, and registration is a prerequisite for resettlement.
Sally Thompson, the head of the Border Consortium, an NGO that supports refugees in the nine camps along the Thailand-Burma border, told me that Thailand has been generous with the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has taken in over the decades from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. But she added that leaving people like Norman and his family unregistered makes their situation all the more precarious.
“Any new arrival who came into the camps since 2005 is not even registered in a database with the Thai government,” she said. Refugees like Norman have no legal status and, as nonpersons, are much more likely to be deported back to Burma. The Thai government can get away with not registering refugees because it never signed the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Walking through camp away from the simulator apartment, Norman and I met another Karen refugee, Saw Wah*, who's on track for resettlement. Wah has family in Winnipeg, Canada, and he's waiting expectantly for his resettlement application to work its way through both the Thai and Canadian bureaucracies. If he's lucky, he'll soon begin prepping for life in Canada. He may even get a training session in the simulator apartment.
As Norman listened, I wondered how hard it is for him to bear the other man's enthusiasm for the future. The only hope for Norman's family to get out of Mae La safely would be the end of Burma’s civil war, which has been raging for more than 60 years. The government and the rebels are currently holding complex ceasefire talks, but there is still fighting in some parts of the country, and the Burmese army remains deployed in the southeast of the country, in and around many Karen villages. Thompson told me that until the troops withdraw the refugees won’t feel safe enough to return to their homeland.
Even if Norman had the choice, he wouldn't return to Burma anyway. If he could, he'd move to the West so his three children could get a good education. But for now, Mae La is home, and the simulated apartment is just a fantasy.
As he walks me toward the entrance of the camp, where I will leave him behind the barbed wire, we pass the apartment again. I ask Norman how he feels when he sees it. “It makes us sad,” he says. “Because our life, to have a chance like that, we dream of that.”
*Names of refugees in this article have been changed at their request.