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Fire Ravages Refugee Camp in Tak Thailand



Television footage showed smoke and flames rising from a vast area of the Umpiem Mai camp, which is home to some 17,000 ethnic Karen refugees from Burma


CHIANGRAI TIMES – A huge fire swept through a crowded Thai border camp home to thousands of refugees from neighbouring Myanmar on Thursday, destroying hundreds of homes, the authorities said.

The blaze started at about midday (0500 GMT) and quickly spread around the Umpiem Mai refugee camp, said Poth Ruwaranan, head of Phop Phra district in western Tak province.

He told AFP that there were no reports of casualties, but Sally Thompson of the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food and shelter at ten border camps, said she had heard of children suffering burns.

“Patients in the clinic have been evacuated and are staying in the food warehouse,” she said.

A Myanmar woman cries after her home was destroyed in a fire at the Umpiem Mai camp in Tak province, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, in Thailand. The fire destroyed about 1,000 bamboo shacks at the camp for Myanmar refugees across the border in western Thailand. (AP Photo/Chiravut Roogjumrus)

Thompson said more than 1,000 houses, three mosques and two nursery schools were destroyed — “about a third of the camp” — while Poth put the figure at 300 homes.

“We believe that the fire started when they cooked. As the houses are made of bamboo and leaves, it spread too fast, especially with the hot and dry weather and strong wind,” the district chief said.

Residents were not allowed to leave the camp, so those who lost their homes would have to stay with relatives or friends on the site, he added.

Camp manager Khetthai Wongsuwan later said the fire had been extinguished and food was being distributed for those affected.

“We will provide materials such as wood and equipment for them to build new houses in the same place,” he said.

More than 17,000 displaced people from Myanmar were staying in the Umpiem Mai camp as of December, according to figures from the TBBC, a group of international non-governmental organisations operating along the border.

The 10 camps were housing a total of about 136,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s. Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

About 88,000 camp residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, but while an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries, they have been replaced by new arrivals trickling across the Moei river.

Many others live illegally outside the camps, where families live cheek-by-jowl in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings.

After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar last year, Thailand announced that it wanted to shut the border camps when it was safe to do so, raising concern among their residents.

Many of the refugees are from Myanmar’s eastern Karen state, where a major rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire deal with the new regime in January after decades of civil war.

But deep distrust about the authorities’ sincerity lingers in ethnic conflict zones, and the KNU has described the peace deal as “fragile”.

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