Independent Appeal: The charity giving hope to Burma's refugee children

Andrew Buncombe ventures across the border to meet the youngest victims of the junta's policy of ethnic repression

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The Independent Online

The Salween river runs free and fast but despite the surging current, this final safe haven is less than two hours upstream from the last outpost of the hated Burmese army. Here, forced to the very edge of their territory, hundreds of families of a persecuted minority cling to the hillsides – and to their lives. They are the Karen, one of Burma's many ethnic groups, and for the past six decades their fighters have battled, on and off, against the encroachment of the Burmese troops and their increasing abuses.

Scores of thousands of Karen have fled across the Salween, or its tributary, the Moei, into neighbouring Thailand. For those who remain, life is fraught. "When the Burmese army built its new capital [at Naypyidaw], they destroyed our villages. Now there is no other place," says Wah Eh Htoo, the camp leader who oversees some 4,000 people at Ei Htu Hta. "Even here we are in danger. We feel afraid." The situation inside Burma, ruled by a repressive military junta since 1962, creates a turbulence that reverberates across the region.

Burma is responsible for the creation of more refugees and migrants than any other country and a human tragedy that includes not only the countless thousands cooling their heels in UN-administered camps dotted along the border, but a trafficking network that sees terrified Burmese traded as labourers, domestic staff and sex workers. Officials on both sides are said to take a cut.

Up to 145,000 refugees are estimated to live in camps inside Thailand, of which around 80 per cent are Karen and another two million undocumented migrant workers. Inside eastern Burma, where there are thought to be 465,000 internally displaced people, it is unclear how much territory is still held by Karen forces. The Karen National Union (KNU), a political coalition, insists the Karen National Army (KNA) controls swathes of land, though observers say that in recent years it has lost control of most towns and larger villages.

It is perhaps telling that the Ei Htu Hta camp is located directly on the border; the civilians here could be no closer to Thailand while still remaining inside Burma. That short distance across the Salween river makes a world of difference. For those Karen registered at the nine camps inside Thailand, there is healthcare, education and food provided by the Thai authorities and international donors. Inside Burma the flow of aid comes almost entirely from community-based organisations. Very little is official.

One of the organisations trying to help the people at Ei Htu Hta is Children on the Edge (Cote), one of the beneficiaries of The Independent's Christmas appeal. Working with a local partner, the Karen Women's Organisation (KWO), the charity provides educational and nutritional support, specifically for children under the age of five. It is they who are the most in need. "Numerous studies show that these years are critical in children's cognitive, emotional, and physical development," said the charity's John Littleton. "By having programmes which provide nutritional and social support, we are working to ensure the next generation of Burmese children are given every opportunity to be healthy and whole."

One morning, The Independent left a small Thai riverside town south of Mae Sariang and headed up the Salween in a wooden boat, passing several checkpoints operated by the Thai military. The river was quiet, apart from a few fishing boats, and the noise of the outboard motor. The entry to Ei Htu Hta involves a climb up a steep sandbank which then flattens out and the camp begins.

The atmosphere is slow and lethargic. Many younger men sit around. While women collect water and wash clothes, some of the men busy themselves with small maintenance tasks. Is it clear there is little work for people to do. The nurseries funded by Cote are inside several large bamboo buildings, raised on stilts. Inside one, dozens of children are laid out on mats, having their morning nap, beneath pretty paper ribbons decorating the ceiling. Most of the Karen in this camp are Christian and marked Christmas.

"The children will come to the nursery, they will sing a song and they will have a story. And the teacher leads them to repeat a poem," says 28-year-old Hseedah, the nursery manager. "They also do dancing, and play." One of the most pressing challenges for the families at Ei Htu Hta is getting enough to eat. The money provided by Cote amounts to just three Thai baht (seven pence) per child a day. The children are fed rice with an egg, and curried vegetables. Occasionally there is a little meat. Once a week the children receive milk. "It's very hard to provide sufficient food for the children," says Hseedah. "But outside the camp in Karen state the problem is bigger. There, there is malnutrition, children with distended stomachs."

Sobradi is a sweet-faced boy of five. He and his sister came to the camp with their parents. His father was an agricultural labourer but since arriving at Ei Htu Hta there has been nothing for him to do. Sobradi says his favourite things to eat are eggs. "I also like singing," he declares happily. Not all the children who arrive at the camp are so content.

"There was one child here who would not dare to play with the other children," says one of the teachers. "His family had been living alone in the jungle. He would not even eat with them at lunchtime. The teachers were eventually able to talk with him and calm him. Now he has gone to the school for older children."

One wonders why the people here do not leave for Thailand. The camp leaders insist it is not possible to do so, and say the two-year-old camp is just temporary. It may also be that they cannot bring themselves to leave their homeland, uncertain if they will ever be able to return. The plight of the Karen is inextricably linked to their support for Britain during the Second World War. Many in Burma – among them the father of opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, national hero General Aung San – initially threw their support behind the invading Japanese forces as a means to secure independence. But the Karen, enticed by a promise of post-war autonomy, remained loyal to the colonial power, at great cost.

When Burma gained independence in 1948, Britain forgot the undertakings its officers had made to the Karen. Karen patriots fought a failed war for independence between 1948 and 1950 and since then have continued an insurgent campaign against Burmese rule. The authorities have responded with repression and violence. Since the late 1980s, the number of troops inside eastern Burma has doubled to more than 400,000. Observers say troops target civilians as a means of undermining the armed opposition. There are many reports of troops committing rape, torture, murder and seizing land.

Even for the Karen who cross into Thailand, the situation is unsatisfactory. While the Thai authorities tolerate the refugee camps, they have no desire to encourage streams of poor, homeless people to enter the country. However, becoming registered does bring with it access to opportunities and facilities unavailable to those still inside Burma. In the border town of Mae Sot, long an entry point for Burmese migrants and today a hub for trafficking, Cote helps support several schools and drop-in centres for Burmese children. At one of the centres, 15-year-old Nay Ray explains how his uncle brought him to Mae Sot. "There was fighting in our village. It was hard to get educated. I could hear the gunfire from my classroom," he says. "The villagers had to keep moving because of the fighting. Three times we had to move. I like studying here because I feel safe."

There is a network of 45 charitable schools inside Thailand catering to 9,000 Burmese children living on the border, independently of the camps. Daw Ray is the headteacher at one the newest schools, which recently shifted from battered premises near the rubbish dump in Mae Sot to a new, brightly painted building. Every child here has a story that could warrant its own chapter. One girl was found alone by the river, her parents nowhere to be seen. Another young girl's parents work as rubbish collectors. She loves to study history and Burma's traditional culture.

"Every year we get a 20 per cent increase in student numbers but the funding remains the same," sighs Daw Ray, as children chase a football on the school's dusty pitch. "If we provide lunch for the students, then we cannot pay the teachers. If we pay the teachers we cannot give the children lunch."

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.