Burmese refugee camps built with materials that fuel fire

by Alisa Tang | @alisatang | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 April 2013 12:33 GMT
In decades-old camps, Thai government forbids durable construction materials that might suggest a permanent stay - leaving highly flammable leaf thatch and bamboo. Most recent inferno left 37 dead and 2,300 homeless.

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (AlertNet) - No one knows yet what sparked the fire two weeks ago in the remote Burmese refugee camp in northern Thailand, but what is clear is that the refugees’ makeshift bamboo-and-leaf thatch homes stood no chance against the flames.

As the midsummer wind swept through the area, the leaf thatch roofing fuelled the inferno, leaving 37 dead and two-thirds of the residents homeless in the worst tragedy ever to hit the camps. Their clinics, hospital, pharmacy and food storage buildings were also lost.

“We’ve never had such a death toll in the entire 29 years of the camps. We’ve been through fires, attacks, shelling,  mortars. We’ve had 12 camps burnt down in attacks” by the Burmese army across the border, said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium (TBC), the NGO that manages shelters in Ban Mae Surin in Mae Hong Son province.

“It really is a tragedy when it is such a small community as well. The whole camp is 3,500 people, and 2,300 have lost everything.”

There are currently 140,000 Burmese ethnic minority people living in the nine official refugee camps in Thailand’s border areas. They have fled their homes in Myanmar since the mid-1980s whenever conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic minorities flares.

Although the refugees have been here for decades, the Thai government, which has granted them temporary asylum, forbids them from building shelters with materials that might suggest putting down roots for a permanent stay - ruling out widely available durable, non-flammable construction materials, and leaving bamboo and leaves from the forest.


So each year, several months into the December-to-April dry season, the nine Burmese refugee camps along the border suffer as stray sparks from cooking accidents or nearby brush fires set a leaf thatch roof on fire.

Sometimes a few homes are lost, sometimes more. In February 2012, a massive fire in a camp in northwestern Thailand destroyed 1,000 homes, but the refugees were able to escape to safety, and there were no major casualties.

“It does happen because at this time of the year the camps are overcrowded, and the houses are made of temporary material  - bamboo and roof thatch,” Thompson told AlertNet in a telephone interview.

“It’s very hot, you get very high wind, and the camp is a tinderbox at this time of year. All you can do is pull it down as quickly as possible. Because (Ban Mae Surin) camp is so far, it’s not realistic to think that the fire trucks can get here in time. The community knows that the first course of action is to tear down the building that’s burning.”

Each house is equipped with a long bamboo stick with a metal hook on the end, so when the thatch roof catches fire, they quickly tear it down. The refugees practice evacuation drills and keep the camp clean to prevent rubbish fires, but there is a limit to prevention in these conditions, with these materials.

“A major issue is the type of material used for construction of the refugees’ homes, i.e. bamboo walls and leaf thatch roofing,” Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), told AlertNet by email. “This was a major factor in the rapid spread of the fire in Ban Mae Surin.”

In the fire that late afternoon on March 22, as refugees rushed to put out the flames engulfing Ban Mae Surin’s healthcare and food storage buildings, a strong wind swept through the valley, wafting burning debris east across a river that runs through the camp to a densely packed residential area and trapping dozens of refugees.

In front of them, flames blocked them from the river. Behind them rose a steep hill - too steep to climb to safety.

The dead included 10 children, four disabled adults and an 80-year-old woman. With 400 houses burnt down, another 2,300 people were homeless.


To use any “permanent” materials - even cement, to build stronger foundations in this termite-infested region - the camps need permission from the Thai government.

After the most recent fire in Ban Mae Surin, TBC again asked the Interior Ministry to allow the use of non-flammable metal roofing.

“If we can replace new housing with tin roofs,  that will reduce the fire risk. We tried to do that last year in Umpiem Mai, but it was turned down. We’re trying again now, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to replace with tin,” Thompson said. “The government in Mae Hong Son (province) is considering it favourably… It would be a practical solution, and it will reduce fire risk.”

An Interior Ministry official based in Bangkok acknowledged that the leaf roof was a main problem. “The wind was strong, and the houses have leaf roofs which burn easily,” she said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

As for using flame-retardant building materials, she said “The ministry is in charge of this matter, and we have to wait for their policy.”

Meanwhile, the UNHCR has delivered more than 800 plastic sheets, 60 family-sized tents, 1,200 blankets and 1,200 sleeping mats as emergency assistance.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which manages the camp healthcare, lost its maternity clinic, hospital and store of medicines. IRC country director Christine Petrie said the organisation will need at least $500,000 to rebuild health facilities, and water and sanitation infrastructure in the camp.

TBC has launched an emergency appeal to raise $433,000 to replace food, homes and community buildings destroyed by the fire.

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