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Mae Sot, Thailand 2008/2009
Short Doc: Illegal Immigrants on the Mae Sot Garbage Dump

In my documentary I'm following a group of mostly Burmese immigrants who are living and working with their families on a garbage dump in Mae Sot, Thailand. They earn their money by picking out and recycling plastic and glass bottles. The immigrants live on the dump because they have no other place to go. If they leave the dump they might be arrested and sent back.

Background Information

At least two million Burmese work in Thailand of which only one fourth have valid work permits.*1 The number of illegal Burmese increased dramatically after 1990, as increasing human rights abuses and economic hardships forced young men and women to leave Burma.

In Thailand, illegal Burmese workers are doing the bulk of the lowly paid or dirty work that Thais in general don't want to do. Immigrants do it for 1-2 euro's a day. "Some employers say they give accommodation, food, electricity so they don't need to pay the workers, so there are a range of exploitative conditions that are there."*2

When you have no papers, you can be sent home any second by the Thai government. "Sending these refugees back to Burma is sending them back to possible death, slave labour or forced recruitment as soldiers," said Zoya Phan, of the Burma Campaign UK."*3

While the Thai authorities insist that no one will be forced to return to Burma against their will, they have said that those who want to go home could start returning immediately. It has been claimed that officials have already been putting pressure on some of the refugees.*3

*1 The Mizzima - Mizzima.com; 28 November 2008 *2 Radio Nederland Wereldomroep - Rnw.nl; 17 June 2005 *3 The Independent - Independent.co.cuk; 5 February 2010

Local Newspaper Article 24/1/2009
Illegal immigrants on the Mae Sot Garbage Dump

Translation: On the 23rd of January, 200 members from the Mae Sot police force, volunteer forces, municipality of Mae Sot and Tak immigration department arrested illegal immigrants in the Mae Sot area. They arrested 116 people in total, made up of Burmese, Bangladeshi and Karen people.

Illegal immigrants on the Mae Sot Garbage Dump

Immigrants leaving the garbage dump after the police destroyed their houses.

A Day on the Garbage Dump

Around 300 people are living on the garbage dump in Mae Sot. They are eating, sleeping and working on the garbage dump, because if they leave the dumpsite they might get arrested and deported. They work in shifts and are very well organised. In the beginning I tagged along with Fred, a volunteer who brings medicine and other supplies to the dump.

The first few weeks I did not bring a camera, because it’s in my opinion not polite to just barge in and take photos of their ‘private’ properties. I wanted to show good intentions first and gain trust, and understand what I’m photographing. With Fred and the help of friends we brought in medical students, supplies and occasionally brought someone to the medical clinic if there was more help needed.

These photo’s are taken over the course of several weeks (2008).

Early in the Morning
Mae La Refugee Camp
A Night in Mae La Refugee Camp

During my stay in Mae Sot I also visited and spent a night in Mae La refugee camp. I had never visited a refugee camp before and I was surprised how clean and well organised it was. I already interviewed ex-political prisoners and immigrants, so my main focus was to experience and talk about the current situation in the camp. I couldn't take much photos.

The refugee camp has around 40.000 refugees, I believe you can see it as a small city. There are privately run stores selling basic needs like food and supplies. Children are going to school and adults are trying to make themselves useful. There are a lot of education opportunities for children and young adults. Boredom and food rations are the biggest problem that I heard of when talking with people. As a refugee you’re not allowed to leave the camp, there is strict security, and no expectation to go home soon because of life threatening conflicts in Burma.

Update 2016: Tourist sanctions where lifted in 2012 after the country was closed for visitors for decades and in 2015 Burma held national elections which ended 50 years of military rule. The democratic party won but the military-drafted constitution guarantees that unelected military representatives take up 25% of the seats in the Hluttaw and have a veto over constitutional change, according to bbc.com

According to Human Right Watch, political imprisonment is still increasing in 2016. You’ll get arrested for protesting and there is no freedom of speech. As of January 17, 472 persons are awaiting politically motivated charges of whom many are students, land right activists and journalists. When I personally interviewed ex-political prisoners, one student was almost 6 years confined in prison for owning a flyer of a democratic party, others I spoke have been sentenced between 12 to 15 years for related accusations.

As of 2016 the camp, run by The Border Consortium, is still struggling to get enough funding.

“With staple food prices increasing and a reduction in support from some donors, it has been more challenging than ever to carry out TBC’s essential work. This has forced TBC to make cuts to the programme, including cuts to the food ration, which now falls below the international SPHERE minimum standard. “


Photos of Mae La Refugee Camp