Mae La is the largest of the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. It was established in 1984, and is home to around 40,000 refugees, many of whom are Karen people who have fled the violence in Eastern Burma. The majority of the refugees are Christian or Buddhist, with a small number of Muslims. Many have lived in the camp for as long as twenty years. Children born in the camp have grown up and established their own families there – all the while without any prospect of life in the outside world.
Although their basic needs are met, Mae La's refugees suffer from many restrictions. They are unable to return home to Burma, but cannot leave the camp and enter Thailand. Under Thai law, any refugees found outside the camps will be arrested and deported back to Burma. Officially, refugees have no access to employment and even farming is prohibited, although many refugees grow at least some of their own food and others have found 'jobs' providing services to their fellow camp inhabitants, like teaching. However, prospects for long-term advancement are severely limited: education is basic, classes are over-crowded, and the potential for higher education is almost non-existent.
On the whole, refugees are expected to survive on handouts from NGOs, fuelling a culture of dependence and powerlessness. This has serious problems for Mae La’s community. Rape, domestic violence, substance abuse and psychological illness are prevalent, with aid workers attributing this to long-term confinement in the camps and a lack of hope for the future. In addition, there is an ever-present threat from Burmese forces. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (a Karen faction, loyal to the junta) has attacked the camp in the past, and threatened to destroy it as recently as July 2009. In 1997-98, Huay Kaloke refugee camp, close to Mae La, was attacked and burned down by DKBA soldiers. The threat of such an attack hangs over the camp's inhabitants every day of their lives.