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Suicide Rates on Rise among Myanmar Refugees in Thailand’s Biggest Camp, says UN Study

Collaborative efforts between nongovernmental groups and government agencies could help identify the cause and ways to prevent suicides

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Refugees shop for food in a market inside Mae La camp in Tak province, northwestern Thailand, June 2, 2012. Benarnews/RFA
  • The study found that only one person committed suicide in Mae La camp in 2014, but the number escalated to 14 each year in 2015 and 2016
  • During the same three-year period, 96 people attempted to kill themselves at the camp, the study said
  • Family conflicts, financial situations, alcohol and drug abuse and depression could have contributed to the rising figures

Myanmar, July 1, 2017: Suicide among Myanmar refugees in Thailand’s biggest camp increased at an alarming rate during the past two years, according to a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The study, which was released on Monday – the eve of World Refugee Day – found that only one person committed suicide in Mae La camp in 2014, but the number escalated to 14 each year in 2015 and 2016.

During the same three-year period, 96 people attempted to kill themselves at the camp, the study said.

“The trend is increasing in the past couple of years,” said Dana Graber Ladek, chief of IOM mission in Bangkok. “This actually needs more services, such as by counselors and psychiatrists in the camps, to prevent suicide.”

Mae La camp in Thasongyang district of Tak province, about 500 km (312 miles) north of Bangkok, harbors about 40,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen from eastern Myanmar. It is the largest of nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, where about 100,000 people resettled after the Myanmar military regime launched offensives against ethnic rebel forces during the 1980s.

Ladek said collaborative efforts between nongovernmental groups and government agencies could help identify the cause and ways to prevent suicides.

“The Interior Ministry of Thailand takes this refugee situation very seriously, and it’s not a situation that one agency can address,” Ladek told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. He added that the effort would require a collaborative approach on many different levels.

The study said no conclusive cause for the surge in suicides had been established. But, it said, family conflicts, financial situations, alcohol and drug abuse and depression could have contributed to the rising figures.

Middle-age people, mostly those who have spent their entire lives in the camp, were statistically at higher risk of suicide, the study said. It said the most common methods used were hanging and drinking herbicides which are easily available because many refugees work on farmlands.

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Government officials respond

Officials of a Thai government agency that manages the camp said they were aware of the suicides. They responded by fielding psychiatrists who provided counseling to vulnerable individuals and set up checkpoints to stop drug trafficking into the camp.

“We have our representatives staying with refugees in the camp who observe and are ready to talk with them 24/7,” Kwanruen Srichan, director of Border and Refugee Affairs Section, told BenarNews during a phone interview.

“We are expecting that attempted and completed suicides would decline,” she said.

Thailand began hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s. More recently, Thailand has received populations threatened by armed conflict and ethnic persecution in Myanmar, according to Amnesty International (AI).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 80,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand had resettled in other countries since 2005. It said tens of thousands had returned to Myanmar after the new democratically elected government announced its commitment to voluntary refugee repatriation.

But the 100,000 refugees remaining in nine camps are facing reduced funding, decreased resettlement opportunity and poorer services, officials said.

“This is very complex,” Ladek said. “All the reasons are contributing” to the problem.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but officials said the country has been committed to providing the humanitarian needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

In addition to the 100,000 people living in refugee camps, AI said there were about 8,000 asylum seekers from more than 50 countries in Thailand.

Another 330 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers are being held in immigration detention centers in difficult living conditions and many have been forcibly repatriated.

On Tuesday, AI said that despite Thailand’s role in hosting and supporting large refugee populations, the nation had failed to consistently protect their rights.

“Refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand are not afforded any legal status under Thai law and remain extremely vulnerable to arrest, detention, forcible deportation and exploitation,” AI said in a statement.

-Benarnews/RFA

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2015 Agreement to Bring Peace to Ukraine’s East Remains Unimplemented

Ursula Mueller, the U.N.'s deputy humanitarian chief, said the conflict is causing severe humanitarian problems.

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FILE - A Russia-backed rebel guards the position after sunset near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Aug. 2, 2015. Hostilities in eastern Ukraine have abated after February's peace agreement, but the truce has been frequently violated. VOA

A 2015 agreement to bring peace to Ukraine’s volatile east remains largely unimplemented and civilians are paying the highest price, with more than 3,300 killed and 3.5 million needing humanitarian aid this year, U.N. officials said Tuesday.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014 and support for separatist rebels in the east triggered a conflict with Ukrainian government forces that the U.N. says has also injured up to 9,000 civilians and displaced 1.5 million people.

Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenca told the Security Council that negotiations “appear to have lost momentum,” with Russia and Ukraine unable or unwilling to agree on key steps forward or too distracted to focus on implementing the 2015 agreement.

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Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia addresses the United Nations Security Council, at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 17, 2018. VOA

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia and Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko blamed each other for the failure to implement the agreement signed in the Belarus capital, Minsk.

Jenca, who is in charge of European affairs, stressed that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is not dormant. “It is a conflict in the heart of Europe which continues to claim victims,” he said.

Jenca said the main parties have committed to over a dozen cease-fires since the start of the conflict, but “each one was regrettably, short-lived.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation’s monitoring mission in Ukraine reports that the military positions of both sides are coming closer to each other in the “gray areas” near the so-called “contact line,” he said. “The use of heavy weapons and their deployment in the proximity of the contact line is a reality.”

United Nations
Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria, April 25, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. VOA

Ursula Mueller, the U.N.’s deputy humanitarian chief, said the conflict is causing severe humanitarian problems, noting that many of the 3.5 million people who need aid are elderly, women and children.

“Many are struggling to access schools, hospitals and other essential services,” she said. “Many have lost their jobs, homes, family members and friends.”

Mueller said the U.N. has appealed for $162 million this year to aid 2.3 million people.

Ertugrul Apakan
Ertugrul Apakan, Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, addresses a news conference at OSCE’s headquarters in Vienna, Feb. 5, 2015. VOA

Ertugrul Apakan, chief of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, told the council by video that many people use checkpoints in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk to receive pensions and see families separated by the conflict. Since December, he said, there have been “14 cases of people who died from natural causes while waiting at the checkpoints.”

Mueller said most of those who died this year were elderly. People wait for several hours in freezing temperatures to cross the contact line, and she urged better conditions and additional crossing points, especially in Luhansk where there is only one.

Before the meeting, eight former and current European Union members of the Security Council issued a joint statement urging humanitarian access to areas not under Ukrainian government control.

They called on Russia “to immediately stop fueling the conflict by providing financial and military support” to the separatists and reiterated their opposition to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Nonetheless, they said, they “remain convinced that a peaceful resolution of the conflict is possible.”

Nebenzia said Russia called the council meeting to discuss implementation of the 2015 agreement, declaring that the situation in southeastern Ukraine “remains explosive” with positions now “too close to each other at some locations.” He said Ukraine “comprehensively and consciously ignores and sabotages the Minsk agreements and our Western partners cover up for all of its unlawful acts.”

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Ukrainian Ambassador the the United Nations Volodymyr Yelchenko speaks during a security council meeting about the escalating tensions between the Ukraine and Russia at United Nations headquarters, Nov. 26, 2018. VOA

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Ukraine’s Yelchenko countered that “it is only Russia and its ongoing military activity in the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine as well as in Crimea that constitute for now an unsurmountable obstacle for the peaceful resolution of the conflict.” (VOA)