BAN MAI NAI SOI REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand (CNS) — Some 90,000 Myanmarese refugees live in nine camps on the Thai side of the border. At the height of displacement in the early 1990s, the camps held more than 130,000 refugees.
People already in the camps have watched humanitarian groups come and go over the years, though in recent times aid workers have mostly moved on to newer crises, leaving a chronic shortage of assistance for the refugees. What hasn’t declined is the commitment of the Catholic Church to accompany people in the camps.
Father Dominic Nyareh, a Burmese priest who serves as chaplain in Ban Mai Nai Soi, was appointed to his post by the bishop of Loikaw in 2008. He’s one of five priests assigned by the Myanmar church as chaplains in the camps.
Thai officials won’t allow Father Nyareh to live in the camp, which is guarded by Thai soldiers, so he commutes every day from nearby Mae Hong Son. Another priest, Father Joseph Sureh, joined him in 2015, but he lives inside the camp. Thai officials won’t allow him to leave it.
Two Burmese nuns also serve Ban Mai Nai Soi. Together, the pastoral team provides leadership to four churches within the camp, with a full gamut of parish activities from men’s retreats to a youth group to flute classes for children. They also run a boarding house for orphans and other children who have family in the camp but their home environment isn’t safe or conducive to study. They currently have 33 boarders.
Father Sureh said there used to be more, but since a cellular signal became available in the camp, some children have refused to stay in the church-run boarding house because the church won’t allow the children to have mobile phones.
Father Nyareh said when Pope Francis mentioned refugees from Myanmar in his speech for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees Sept. 25, his words echoed among Burmese of all faiths.
“Our people feel that the world has forgotten Myanmar. We are a forgotten people. So I’m very grateful to Pope Francis that he helped the world remember Myanmar,” he told Catholic News Service.
“The whole world is paying attention to Ukraine and other places, but Myanmar is one of worst countries for human rights violations. There’s no rule of law anymore. People are frustrated and depressed and feel that we have been forgotten.”
In his speech marking the day, Pope Francis noted the recent bombing of a school by Myanmar’s military, which has controlled the country since a February 2021 coup.
“For more than two years that noble country has endured heavy fighting and violence, which have caused so many victims and displaced many people. This week I heard a cry of pain for the death of children in a school hit by bombs,” Pope Francis said. “May the cry of the little ones not go unheard. Such tragedies ought not to happen.”
Father Nyareh’s home village of Donoku was attacked by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, in May, leaving half the community in ashes. The priest said if the opposition forces in Myanmar had received the same assistance as that received by Ukrainians opposing the Russian invasion, the refugees he serves could go home.
“The young people are ready to sacrifice their life for liberation. Whatever cost they have to pay, they are ready. But they don’t have the guns and equipment that the Tatmadaw has. If they had gotten support in Myanmar like that the people of Ukraine received, it would be game over,” he said.
Instead, with harsh international sanctions seeming to have little effect on the country’s rulers, Myanmar’s military continues its attacks on a broad assortment of ethnically based rebel groups as well as civilian populations it considers disloyal.
Father Sureh’s mother and sister were displaced by fighting in 2021, but they cannot join him inside the camp because Thailand won’t permit new entrants. So they remain inside Myanmar in a camp for internally displaced people, a two-hour walk from the refugee camp.
Everyone in Ban Mai Nai Soi lives in bamboo houses. Thai soldiers patrol the camp to ensure that no one builds anything that isn’t temporary.
“We have to live in bamboo huts. If we were back home in Myanmar or some other country, we could live a more comfortable life. There’s no work in the camp, and people aren’t allowed to go outside the camp. Years ago, many could apply for third country resettlement, but a lot of people held out hope they could soon return home. Now, after so many years and with the situation in Myanmar not improving, many are interested in resettlement. But now it’s not allowed,” said Father Sureh.
Whatever happens in the camps, the church workers say they’ll stay as long as their bishop wants them to be present.
Father Joe Hampson, a Scottish Jesuit who directs the work of Jesuit Refugee Service along the border, said that’s good news.
“The presence of the priests and sisters is a sign of normalcy in a very abnormal situation. Having a church presence gives a sign that the Lord is walking with them,” he said.
Father John Barth, a Maryknoll missionary from Buffalo, New York, who works on the border providing assistance to refugees in the camps and internally displaced families just across the border in Myanmar, says ordinary civilians in Myanmar look to the church for protection.
“The refugees feel accompanied by the pope and the rest of the church because they’ve sent their representative in Father Dominic and Father Joseph. The people know they aren’t alone,” Father Barth said.
“In the villages they came from, when the bombs started falling, many people ran to the church for protection. Of course, some didn’t fare too well when they bombed the churches. But the church has always been seen as their protector and as a voice for the voiceless.”
In recent months, deteriorating conditions inside Myanmar have driven several thousand new refugees over the border into Thailand. Yet the Thai government has refused to let them enter existing camps and, at times, has forced them back across the border. On Oct. 20, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees condemned the practice.
“UNHCR remains gravely concerned about multiple reports from countries in the region of refoulement — the forcible return of refugees and asylum-seekers — since February 2021. We repeat our call on states to continue offering protection to Myanmar nationals fleeing for safety,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection.