Mae La refugee camp

Where is it?

The video above uses Google Earth to show where the Mae La refugee camp is situated and how big it is.

What is it?

Mae La is the largest of seven camps along Thailand’s border with Burma (the country whose military dictators renamed Myanmar) these camps house over 140,000 people who have fled when the Myanmar military forces burned the villages, and committed atrocities which caused ethnic minorities (and especially the Karen people) to believe they intended genocide.

What is the camp like?

It seems a funny question to ask, and doubtless every camp is different, certainly the two we have seen were not the same as each other! Doubtless too among readers of this blog there will be some who’s ideas of a “refugee camp” may be as unrealistic as ours were before we went to Mae La. I can’t describe “refugee camps”, but I can describe our experience of one corner of one camp.

Many people arrive at Mae La on the main highway from Mae Sot the nearest town about 40 minutes to the south. The first time hopefully a contact will pick you up from the bus station, after that it is easy (except on the behind) to catch a “line bus” (a ute with bench seats for passengers either side of the luggage). At first the highway goes through farms, then as it climbs into the hills there are less and less people, and lovely forest on either side. Pleasant country, though not spectacular.

After a Thai Army checkpoint you start to pass the camp. The main purpose of the check points seems to be to “catch” Burmese citizens moving freely around Thailand without proper papers (i.e. to restrict the movement of refugees and illegals – there are checkpoints on many roads in the border area, not just near the camp). KKBBSC and its associated Baptist centres (like the home for landmine victims and the children’s “orphanage”) are at the far end, almost were the camp stops and the hill rises to Prayer Mountain.

Mae La is the largest in a chain of seven camps inhabited mainly by Karen refugees fleeing the Myanmar Military Government. The chain stretches along much of the length of the Thai border with Burma from the extreme north down to one east of Bangkok. The official figures are certainly an underestimate of their populations, since there are many reasons why some inhabitants of the camps do not want their presence officially known. The UNHCR figures cover only those people who have been granted official “refugee” status, something that sometimes takes years to achieve. According to the figures used by The Thailand Burma Border Consortium as a basis for the food and other resources they supply there were 38,923 refugees in the Mae La camp during March. All one can really say is that between 40 and 80 thousand people inhabit this camp.

It does not look like a town though, because the houses are not built of permanent materials (officially all buildings are of wood, bamboo and leaves). The line bus will stop several times along the camp, the longest stops will be the checkpoints, and outside the market. Officially there can be no market in the camp, since no one has any job or money. However, humans being what they are if you do have money you can buy almost anything you need in the market that isn’t there. A student managed to find me some blank DVDs to backup these videos, and others have got medicines they needed there too…

Driving past the camp in a private car takes about 6-7 minutes at 80KPH with a couple of places where one has to slow for checkpoints, which gives an idea of its size. It is long and fairly thin, squeezed between the road and the steep cliff that rises on the other side of the river. The camp is formally divided into “sections”, KKBBSC is in Section C. I can’t show you photos of the market or of the other sections, since our presence was unofficial we were asked to keep within the college area.

So, this refugee camp is like a huge village. But one where no one may have a “proper job”, though many weave cloth, or sell items from large windows in their houses, or teach or study… One where a minimum “ration” of food is provided and only a supplement can be grown, since there is little space for fields.

This ration is maintained only with difficulty, rising prices have lead the TBBC to announce on April 1st:

Update about TBBC rations.
Due to further budget restrictions, TBBC will have to make additional adjustments to the original ration reductions made in December 2007.

And then on the 10th:

Food prices threaten refugee’s right to food
The current global increase in food prices is striking hard against people who are dependent on aid programs for their survival. Rice prices have risen by over 100% this year. To read more click here.

On food in the camp this section of the TBBC website is very informative, and gives a good idea of what is going on.

Lest anything I have said above give the wrong impression, and despite terrible suffering imposed by a brutal military dictatorship, seen most obviously in the bodies of the landmine victims, but glimpsed also in the fleeting mentions of not knowing “where my family is, we were separated when the army burned the village” and the like, or in the horrific pictures printed out from the Free Burma Rangers website of the treatment of “porters” (civilians conscripted as slaves and worked often to death by the Myanmar Army), the people in Mae La are cheerful, gentle, hopeful and kind. And, at least in Section C they have a deep and enduring faith in God – who else can they trust?

50 responses to “Mae La refugee camp

  1. Pingback: Mission trip Mae Sod Oct 28- Nov 12 « more better disciples


  3. Thanks for the Mae La video

    SSPS used in Mae Sot

    from Dave G GICSN

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  5. I am looking to speak to someone from the KED to help me get an Employment Verification for a previous teacher from the Mae La Camp – No (1) High School.. Can you help me send a verification?

  6. Wayne,

    I am sorry, unless No (1) High School is in section 3 of the camp I do not have any contacts that are likely to be able to help, the camp is like a small city and I am currently in NZ not Thailand.

  7. Hi, I came across your ministry through Dr. Johnson Lim in Singapore. I’m an alumni of Singapore BTS and am now involved in Education Mission, running a Christian School in Johor Bahru.
    I would like to know if there is a great need for English education classes at Mae La. I will follow up on this if there is such a need.
    Also, when is an appropriate time to pay a visit over there. I am thinking of having a few of us going over to learn first hand of the educational needs, and perhaps organizing a class or two.
    Shalom, God bless your work.

  8. I’m looking for volunteer opportunities this summer for 4-6 weeks. Could you email me any programs that I could apply for and join? Thanks!

  9. Hi,

    I have a family that sponsored their mother from the camp back in 2004. Her case has been lost and we can not track where and how she’s doing. Is there any way we can get news from her case overseas? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

  10. If she was in section three I could pass her name and your email on to a contact if you want you could email me tim (at]

  11. i love u karen what happend in ma la camp i want to know i really worried about my karen people but i can’t do any thing

  12. It must be hard especially if you are far away. Are there many Karen people where you are?

  13. Ms. Jen Schultz

    I have 3 Karen students who used to live in Mae La. They were very happy to see pictures!!

  14. Hi

    I am presently trying to raise funds to build a library / incipient university in Mae La.
    If any one can help please be in touch. I will forward my project proposal.

    Paul x

    • Hi
      I am currently working on a like-minded project. I am based in NY, but would love to talk and see how we could work on something together! My email is Bobby at hateisugly dot com.
      I hope that this message receives you well after four years time.
      Robert Wise

      • I haven’t a lot of very up to date information except that food is an increasing problem as donors move their giving into Burma in the hope that the current ceasefire and political processes will lead to lasting peace. Refugees living near you will have frequent and recent contact with family and friends still in the camps.

  15. This past summer I was was lucky enough to be given the job of being an ESL teacher to several students from the Mae La refugee camp. In all of the 11 years I have taught, I have never been so blessed as to be the teacher of some of the sweetest, most respectable students EVER. These students WANTED to learn, always greeted me, and wanted to know how I was doing. Most days I felt like the student in the classroom when they told me what they have had to go through in the camps. It is an experience I will never forget.

  16. Hi
    I am a journalism student and I am working on a story for Carleton’ School of Journalism in Ottawa, Canada. This story is set to air on monday morning (our time).
    My story’s angle is focusing in the present situation along the Burma-Thai Border. I’ve accumulated a few resources here but I would still like to talk to someone who knows first hand about the situation on the ground in Thailand and Burma.
    This is for radio so I would really appreciate an interview over the phone so that I may use a clip for the story.

    Please let me know as soon as possible. I really appreciate all your time and help. Thank you.


    Laura Gamez

  17. I’m interested in teaching ESL in a refugee camp. I have 7 years experience serving as a missionary in Indonesia primarily among Afghani refugees in detention centers. I’m CELTA certified with experience teaching business English to adults, and to children of all ages in both Catholic and public national schools. I have a heart for displaced people and I desire to bless them with skills so that they can further grow and flourish. How can apply for teaching work in detention centers? Could you please help me?
    Thank you for any help you can give to me. Sincerely, Susan

  18. I’m sorry…. how can I apply for teaching work in REFUGEE CAMPS? : ) Thank you! Susan

    • Hi, Susan, in terms of paid (or even supported, beyond food and shelter while you are there) I guess the best way is to approach NGOs who work in the area, a Google search will throw up some possibilities, I know one NGO that often is looking for semi-volunteers for Umpiem camp. Our own experience was as volunteers who paid our own way.

  19. Hi, I will be venturing to Mae La camp this summer, not sure with which organization yet. Anyway, I am the community organizer for the refugee community from Burma (out of Mae La camp) in San Diego and I will have letters to deliver to family member in the camp from their family members in San Diego. I was wondering how I would be able to access all area of the camp to walk and find these families houses–all I will have is their addresses. Is this possible to do? I am unsure how I will get into the camp, but I have to do an internship with school–so I should be set up with an organization.


    • Replied by email, basically the situation is fluid and depends a lot on the level of tension along the border (high at present in the area arounbd Mae Sot). The rules are that foreigners are not allowed in the camps unless they have a role with a recognised NGO. However, like many rules this one is often interpreted less than strictly…

  20. Hi, I am a university student from Singapore and I will be graduating in about a month’s time. I will be spending a few days in Chiang Mai this june and I would really like to take that opportunity to visit a Burmese refugee camp to to see what it is like and to explore volunteering possibilities there. I have emailed a couple of NGOs, but have not received favourable replies so far. I’m wondering if you could give me some advice on how I might be able to get in or some NGOs you know which might be willing to bring me in?

    • Replied by email. Basically mentioning that a few days is a short time, and suggesting one NGO and an informal group working with IDP children.

      • Hi. Thank you so much for this post. I am a US law school student who has previous experience working for refugee rights. I will head off to Thailand soon, and I was also wondering if I could accompany an NGO to visit a camp sometime. I assume by your previous posts that it’s possible to enter alone, but I figure helping an NGO out while visiting a camp would be much more worthwhile and rewarding. Thank you so much for your help, and I look forward to hearing from you!

      • The situation with respect to visiting is fluid and always different, from what I hear at present the Thai authorities are applying the rules which means that only people actually employed by the recognised NGOs are being allowed in. However the camp boundaries are very leaky. Certainly making contact through either an international NGO or a Karen organisation would be much preferable to random “tourism” ;)

  21. Hi, I am a medical student from the UK and am looking for volunteering opportunities for my elective. Do you know of a/team of doctors there whom I could get in contact with to see if there is any potential of me helping them out for a period of 5 weeks?
    Thanks for any help you can give me

    • Hi Siobhan,

      The Mae Tao clinic, the main medical centre for IDPs from Burma near the Thai border, those in the camps and illegal migrants in the area is long established, and we were impressed by their organisation because they are not government supported (founded by a Karen Doctor to help her people) they use a lot of volunteers. I do not know if this page is “official” but I think gives good information: their own page is here

  22. hello guys i was from mae la as well but now im living in australia and i will do all my best to help my people

  23. I been living with a lady and her 3 children for 2 years that is from your camp. They are here in the United States now. I meet a lot of Karen people here.

  24. hi,
    i am in Mae La Camp now and I know that the Thai Government is not allow to foreigner to visit in this camp. If the want we have to inform them before a day. And another things is Thai and Burma government are combine each other and allow to move refugee people to Burma site…But as for me, I have not home in Burma right now…We got a trouble by government, that’s why all of my family already to move to this camp…I am really afraid to go back to Burma..I never trust Burma government..Because they are killing our people a lot.Please pray for us..Thanks.

    • Hi, Naw Phaw Phaw,

      Barbara and I are praying for you all. We realise that while the cease fire between the KNLA and the Burma government (which comes after a number of other hopeful changes) does not yet make it safe for people to return home. We do hope that this beginning may make a return to Kawthoolei and a new start for for the Karen people possible before many more years.

      God bless,


  25. I am seeking to work in some capacity with Karen around Maesot. I am a retired forester, conservationst, teacher and trainer (I have a lot of experience in developing countries in West Africa) I am happy to teach english and am sure that I may have other skills to offer.
    I am travelling to Thailand in a couple of weeks and intend to come to Maesot to explore the possibilities. Can you point me in a good direction please so I can make the best use of my exploration time.
    I am a Quaker.

    • I’d suggest places like the Canadian coffee shop, number one guest house (if he’s still there) and the Mae Tao clinic as places to try. Or if you email me maybe we can help with a more direct contact.

  26. You have helped so many people with advice and direction! Maybe you would be able to provide a suggestion for me as well. We are trying to plan a trip to Mae La – taking along some refugees who have been in Raleigh for six years now. Do you know if we can make certain plans to enter Mae La as foreigners, or would we only be able to get in “unofficially”?

    • I believe that at present Nov-Dec 2012 the Thai authorities are not allowing foreigners into the camp even some attached to NGOs that usually can, but as the refugees will tell you the boundary of the camp, like the border is “porous”. However entering might draw you to the attention of Thai authorities…

  27. Refugees would have offical refugee status

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  29. Hi. Am glad to read about your work amongst the Karen in Mae La. I have basic command of the Sgaw Karen language and am currently exploring in greater detail ways I can be of service to the Lord and His Kingdom. Lord willing, I would like to do so in Mae La.

    How do I begin? Thank you!!

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  32. I am interested in volunteering with several friends from my church. I lived in Thailand for 5 years and visit regularly. Can you tell me about the current state of the Mae La refugee camp and what needs do they generally have there? You can contact me at ed at teune dot com.


    • I haven’t a lot of very up to date information except that food is an increasing problem as donors move their giving into Burma in the hope that the current ceasefire and political processes will lead to lasting peace. Refugees living near you will have frequent and recent contact with family and friends still in the camps.

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