06/22/2017, 16.59
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Suicide rate soars among Burmese refugees in Mae La Camp (Thailand)

The camp hosts about 50,000 Myanmar citizens, mostly ethnic Karen. In two years 28 refugees took their lives and 66 attempted. For camp residents, "The situation is tragic". Suicides are caused by the lack of freedom, limited educational opportunities, uncertainty, and economic difficulties. Four in 10 deaths were from drinking weed-killer. Family problems were a factor in almost half of all cases, alcohol and substance abuses more than a third.

London (AsiaNews/Agencies) –  The number of recorded suicides and attempted suicides has soared at Mae La, Thailand’s largest camp for refugees from Myanmar in Tak province, in the northern part of the country.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on Monday called for urgent action to treat high levels of distress. Some 28 refugees have killed themselves and 66 have attempted suicide in the last two years. That is more than three times the global suicide rate, this according to an IOM study released on World Refugee Day on Tuesday.

IOM’s data indicate a suicide rate of 36.6 per 100,000 people for the past two years, a rate that is three times higher than the WHO’s global average of 10.7 per 100,000.

Set up in 1984, the Mae La camp holds an estimated 50,000 Myanmar citizens. It is by far the largest of nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border and maintained by Thai authorities, which in total host about 100,000 refugees.

Military offensive in the Karen State (Eastern Myanmar) between the 1970s and the 1990s forced civilians to flee their homes. Many found refuge in neighbouring Thailand and have been there for decades.

According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a group of nine NGOs helping refugees, the population of the nine camps is steadily falling, from more than 140,000 people in 2011 to 98,000 today.

Food rations and aid for people in Mae La are slowly being reduced as governments and international donors cut funding, ostensibly because of the Myanmar peace process. For refugees, this means more hardships. The situation in the camps is "truly tragic”, refugees told AsiaNews.

The Thai government has already announced its intention to close the refugee camps. Many of the residents have spent their entire life in the camps a result of one of the Asia’s worst humanitarian crisis. In the event of closure, they would not know where to go since most of them have never been in any other country but Thailand.

"The number of suicides is very alarming, and we urgently need to address this," said Harry Smith, IOM's project officer in Thailand. "There is a high level of distress in the camps which results from myriad reasons including lack of freedom of movement, uncertainty about the future, economic hardship and a lack of educational opportunities."

There were 14 suicides in Mae La in the last year compared to one in the period June 2014 to May 2015. Men under 50 were most at risk, but one child had also taken his life and three had tried to.

Nearly four in 10 deaths were from drinking weed-killer which is widely available in the camps where residents grow food.

Family problems were a factor in nearly half of suicides. Alcohol and substance abuse played a role in more than a third.

IOM recommends training aid workers in suicide prevention and setting up a family counselling unit. It also suggests bringing in a psychiatrist and a counsellor with experience in suicide as well as limiting access to herbicides.

Refugees in the camps are feeling increasingly uncertain about their future amid a fall in resettlement to third countries and a decrease in support from the international community.

Most are ethnic Karen from eastern Myanmar who fled conflict and often persecution during decades of military rule.

A civilian government, led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, took power last year. But according to Smith many refugees were not confident of security if they returned, and worried about the lack of jobs and their children's education.

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