Gay Burmese refugees face daily discrimination and abuse in Thailand

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 15:00 GMT

An ethnic Karen refugee from Myanmar carries his load through the Mae La camp outside Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border in 2010. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Moses, a refugee from Myanmar, shares about the challenges faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed community in Thai camps

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Moses was only 17 when he left his home in Kachin state in northern Myanmar and headed to Thailand, hoping for a more tolerant environment for homosexuals. Without valid paperwork, however, he found himself stuck inside a refugee camp where homophobia, discrimination and abuse were rife.

That was in 2005. Eight years on, Moses wrote for Thomson Reuters Foundation about the challenges facing Burmese refugees in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed (LGBTI) community at Mae La refugee camp, which houses some 45,000 people and is the largest of nine that sit along the Thai-Myanmar border. 

He also shared his experience setting up the Rainbow Group to fight the intolerant attitudes described in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review.

“I came to Mae La on Christmas day in 2005 because I could no longer live in Myanmar. I used to get bullied at school and at home because of my sexual orientation. The community I grew up in is very strict Christian. They wouldn’t accept me as one of them.

“I thought I’d be able to live freely and independently in Thailand but because I have no documentation, I couldn’t live outside [a refugee camp]. I realised when I got to the camp that things weren’t different – the LGBTI community still face a lot of discrimination. 

“From my understanding, the camp residents are extremely religious, whether they’re Christians, Buddhists or Muslims. Many are unemployed so they use religion as an antidote for their frustrations about living inside a refugee camp. 

“Some Christian preachers would give sermons that would amount to hate messages against homosexuality. The families of my Buddhist [LGBTI] friends wouldn’t accept them, saying they’d soiled the family name and race. The Muslims are very prejudiced too. They wouldn’t allow gays to attend the mosque. 

“Every day we’re verbally abused but it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes the people at the camp would forcibly take off my trousers in the middle of the road. 

“You would think the people around would take pity and help. No way. They’d support these bullies, saying it’s only if they keep doing things like this that we’d be shamed into changing our sexual orientation. 

“We spoke to UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – but because I’m not registered with the U.N. they can’t do anything effective. 

“Most gays in the camp have no homes because their families kicked them out. A non-governmental organisation said they’d find us a house. That was in 2011 and we still haven’t got a house. The problem is communities don’t want gays living among them. 

“Some LGBTIs who feel insecure inside the camp live outside but they are just as vulnerable because under Thai immigration laws, they are illegal migrants. They worry all the time about getting arrested. 

“I’m currently living outside the camp because I’m studying an online diploma course for refugees and migrants from Myanmar. I will have to go back to the camp after I graduate in November as my student card will expire and I can no longer stay in Mae Sot town. I don't feel good about going back. 

“In 2011, I started the Rainbow Group with the help of a friend who was working for a non-governmental organisation in Mae Sot. The idea was to participate in community work and change the intolerant attitudes towards LGBTI people and the poor perception of them. 

“We knew it would be difficult but we wanted to give it a try. Human nature is such that if people were offered something for free – we decorated at weddings and assisted at funerals – they would take it but they didn’t change their attitudes towards us. 

“The group didn’t last very long. Many of the original members are now outside the camp but I hear from friends who are still there that the abuse and discrimination continue.  

“Even in developed countries this issue is still a problem and there’s still discrimination in Myanmar against LGBTI people so naturally it’s going to be worse in refugee camps. 

“There are few choices for LGBTI people. Things are bad in the camp, but they daren’t go back to Myanmar and they also can’t resettle in a third country because many arrived after registration. [Thailand’s refugee screening and registration process at the camps has been dormant since 2005 and only those who have been screened and registered are eligible for third-country resettlement]

“We heard repatriation to Myanmar is going to start soon too. I can’t even imagine what my future is going to be. All I want is to carry on with my studies and live in a place that recognises me as a full human being, regardless of my sexual orientation.”

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