Mae Sot, Thailand – It was dark when Ayenwin Oo, 47, led a group of people from Myanmar through a thick wall of grass leading to a refugee camp. Only a few dim lights from their phones illuminated the dirt road ahead. The silence was replaced by the din of hundreds of voices as he entered one of four small camps on the Thai side of the border in Mae Sot province.
Once inside, a campfire and a few small lights revealed about 1,000 refugees scattered around the area. In one corner, a woman sat on the floor of a hut, measuring out medicine in a syringe for her baby who, like many other children, was suffering from health problems like diarrhoea.
“We have been in this camp for six days now,” Ayenwin Oo told Al Jazeera. He and his family are among many new refugees who have fled violence in Myanmar’s Lay Kay Kaw area in Myawaddy Township, Kayin State.
“But it has been more than 30 days since we fled. We had to flee our town when the Tatmadaw came,” he said, referring to the Burmese army. “We had to move so many times along the river. We settle in, and when it gets dangerous, we have to run again.
While speaking to Al Jazeera, Ayenwin Oo pointed to a makeshift kitchen at the camp. He said the refugees needed more food, clean water and medicine.
A few steps from the kitchen, a small dispensary has been set up for the sick. There was a line of women waiting in total darkness to receive medicine from a small pile of boxes.
Since last year’s February 1 military coup in Myanmar, security forces have carried out a deadly crackdown on protesters and activists, as well as other civilians who opposed the coup. , triggering armed resistance.
According to Myanmar rights watchdog Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 1,488 people have been killed in the government crackdown. The Myanmar government has repeatedly justified the violence by claiming that security forces only go after “terrorists”.
In recent weeks, airstrikes and massacres allegedly carried out by the Myanmar military in Kayin and Kayah states have forced thousands of people to flee to relative safety in Thailand.
But even those who managed to cross the border say they still do not feel safe from the Myanmar army. Many say they are struggling to survive in camps in Thailand due to lack of food, water and medical assistance.
“Thai soldiers sometimes come here, but mostly to tell us that we don’t have the right to go up to the village. But it’s dangerous here because the Burmese army is not too far across the river,” he said, using Myanmar’s old name.
Myanmar’s military is notorious for targeting fleeing civilians and bombing their settlements. Last week, three people were killed, including two children, after a military fighter shelled two refugee camps in southeastern Kayah state.
One of the bloodiest attacks was reported on Christmas Eve in the town of Hpruso, leaving more than 30 civilians dead and burned beyond recognition.
More food aid needed
The majority of newly displaced people from Kayin and Kayah states are heading to different points on the Moei River, a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar that stretches for about 327 km (233 miles).
Al Jazeera spoke to several sources helping distribute food to refugees in Mahawan, a sub-district of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the Moei River. They say they have difficulty getting aid to the refugees.
“The Thai army only allows us to give small portions of fresh food, so if it goes bad, the refugees have to throw it away,” the village chief of Mahawan, who goes by the name of Sopa, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not easy because the government doesn’t allow just anyone to donate. If you want to help, if you want to bring food or water to the refugees, you cannot go directly. It has to go through us first and we have to report to the military,” he explained.
Since October, Sopa and his team of around 10 to 15 Mahawan residents have set up a kitchen to prepare food for the refugees every day. He said donations had dwindled in recent weeks and there was a greater need for resources like bottled water, medicine, shoes and tarps.
For four days, Al Jazeera documented the Thai military arbitrarily stopping the flow of aid at drop-off points to some camps.
When asked why this was happening, military personnel said they feared the food would not be delivered to the refugees, while saying it could end up in the hands of the Myanmar military.
Today, bringing more rice to the informal refugee camp/livestock farm at the border, Mae Sot, Thailand. New arrivals every day without the support of a large NGO put a strain on the small community organizations that care for them, but we will ensure that they have food, thanks to your donations! #whatshappeningin myanmar pic.twitter.com/9Px4ZfkhZW
— Free Bird Cafe/Thai Freedom House (@FreeBirdCafe) January 17, 2022
Patrick Phongsathorn, human rights specialist for Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera that the Thai government has not given humanitarian groups access to refugees.
“The Thai government is trying to control the situation, but it’s a really disastrous way to handle things,” he said.
On a few occasions, some Thai aid groups have managed to gain access to the camps. But they also said there had been instances in previous months where they had been pushed back.
“It’s really sad that the Thai government is playing politics with what is essentially a humanitarian crisis.”
Phongsathorn said Thai authorities were doing their best to preserve their close ties with Myanmar’s military, while promising countries like the United States they would grant humanitarian access.
Thai authorities have also been accused of repeatedly returning refugees to Myanmar in December, violating international laws that prohibit the forcible return of individuals or groups of people to a country where their lives are in danger.
Morgane Russel, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Al Jazeera that the UN body opposes any decision to forcibly return refugees to Myanmar, while also pleading with the Thai government to give them access to those in the camps. .
UNHCR also urged the Thai government to relocate the refugees to a better location where they can access “safer and more dignified temporary accommodation and receive better humanitarian assistance”.
“Nowhere is safe”
While access to aid is a major problem, Myanmar’s continued shelling of civilians remains the primary concern for fleeing refugees.
Despite the risk of being killed by shelling by the Myanmar army, the refugees have not been allowed by the Thai authorities to move further inland where they would be out of danger.
Last week, a clash broke out between resistance fighters and the Myanmar army further east on the banks of the Moei River, sources and news reports said.
During the fighting, the Burmese army reportedly chased down a group of young resisters, who eventually ran out of ammunition and were forced to cross the river to the Thai side. But once they got out of the river, the Burmese army shot and killed them, even after they reached the other side of the border.
“So after this happened a few days ago, people don’t even want to bathe in the river anymore,” Daa, a woman who directs the flow of local donations directly to the camps, told Al Jazeera.
“They know the Burma Army is so close on the other side, they could be seen and then targeted.”
Back at Mae Sot Colony, Ayenwin’s family suffers from debilitating anxiety. On one side of the Moei River, the Burmese army awaits them. But on the other side, the Thai army still refuses to give them proper shelter.
He told Al Jazeera it could only be a matter of time before fighting breaks out again.
“We are afraid that the situation will worsen and that the fighting will continue. The Burmese soldiers came to our village and they are still there, so we cannot go home.