Backgrounder - Karen refugees

In February 2007, based on refugee referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada will begin interviewing Karen refugees with the goal of bringing approximately 2,000 more to Canada for resettlement. This second wave of Karen refugees will be selected once again from the remote Mae La Oon camp, as well as the Mae Ra Ma Luang camp located less than 10 kilometres away. There are an estimated 10,000 refugees in each camp.

Some 140,000 refugees from Burma’s nine main minority groups have been living in nine isolated and closed camps on the Thai / Burmese border for up to 20 years, the largest refugee population in Southeast Asia. Following an agreement in 2005 by the Royal Thai Government to allow large-scale resettlement of Burmese refugees, the UNHCR has identified vulnerable segments of the Karen population as being in need of priority resettlement. The UNHCR has agreed to refer refugees from these camps to Canada. Other countries that have responded to the call by the UNHCR to resettle Burmese refugees include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Of the nine camps in Thailand, Mae La Oon camp is the most remote and the most difficult for aid workers to reach. It has the worst living conditions and is extremely overcrowded. Refugee dwellings are built on steep hillsides that are susceptible to landslides. The lack of appropriate sanitation and water facilities creates a situation where serious public health risks are endemic. It is because of the worsening conditions in Mae La Oon that the UNHCR has pushed for group resettlement from Thailand as a priority.

All of the refugees will require health and security clearance before coming to Canada.

First Group of Karens Arrived in Canada over Fall and Winter

In 2006, as part of a group processing initiative, 810 Burmese Karen refugees were interviewed and selected by Canadian visa officers. The majority have already arrived in Canada, where they have found new homes in cities and towns across the country.

Adapting to Life in Canada a Challenge

Not surprisingly, after living for many years in a remote jungle refugee camp, adjusting to life in Canada is challenging for the Karen refugees. Coming with very few belongings, there is no doubt they are very grateful to be in Canada, but they also face a fairly lengthy period of adjustment. Upon arrival, the refugees were found to be suffering from extreme fatigue and dehydration.

A major challenge has been their difficulty in communicating since few of the Karens speak basic English. Although they have been attending orientation workshops and are cooperative, they are neither accustomed to the classroom setting nor in retaining or comprehending orientation information. After spending so many years in a refugee camp, their priority was surviving day to day. Using practical means and hands-on exercises to convey information is proving to be very helpful.

Once the refugees move out to their own accommodation, they will need to learn about the safe use of appliances as well as fire and building safety. Learning about proper sanitation is also important. Many of them find the transportation system overwhelming so getting around using public transportation has presented its own set of challenges.

Finding affordable housing where the refugees can live close to each other is a priority. Some help has come through the Host program where they have been matched to volunteers. The Host program is designed to help immigrants deal with the issues and stress associated with moving to a new country by providing a friendly and informal environment in which they can learn about their new home.

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