The United Nations refugee agency is assisting more than 15,000 refugees who fled into northern Thailand on Monday after fighting broke out between ethnic Karen rebels and government troops in Myanmar.
“At the request of Thai authorities, we are coordinating the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others to provide shelter, food and water to refugees in the town of Mae Sot,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva today.
“Refugees started pouring across the border early in the morning on foot and on inner tubes across the Moei River,” said Mr. Mahecic. “Some told our staff they felt their lives were at risk after their houses were attacked, while others said they fled the sound of fighting.”
The clashes in the Myawaddy area of eastern Myanmar reportedly began in the wake of Sunday’s elections, the first to be held in the South-east Asian in 20 years.
Many of the refugees collected their children from school and fled to Thailand with only the clothes on their back, some even barefoot, said Mr. Mahecic.
UNHCR is working with the Thai Government and NGOs to coordinate services to the refugees. It has provided 90 tents which Thai authorities and the refugees themselves erected yesterday. Today the agency is providing plastic sheeting for more shelter.
Various NGOs helped to build latrines and install tanks for drinking water, while Thai border guards provided medical help. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which normally provides food and shelter to some 152,000 registered and unregistered refugees in the nine camps in Thailand along the Myanmar border, provided food.
The new refugees gathered at two locations on the Thai side, but were later moved to one site near Mae Sot airport. There were indications it might be too small to hold the swelling numbers, noted Mr. Mahecic.
Meanwhile, UNHCR staff and Thai authorities are working together at a school in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok, to assess the needs of some 3,000 refugees who crossed the border there late yesterday and early today.