The Living Conditions of Burmese Refugees in Thailand

Crossing the border may bring respite from the oppressive Burmese regime, but it is far from a path to freedom for Burmese refugees in Thailand. Instead, in Thailand, a lack of human security is replaced with workplace exploitation, gang violence and police harassment.

Thailand, like most Asian asylum countries, has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, meaning that Burmese refugees have limited legal protection against exploitation and few recognized rights. As Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswomen for UNHCR highlights, there is confusion between Burmese refugees, who flee from persecution, and migrant workers who seek economic benefit; the result being that “legitimate asylum seekers and refugees are instead treated as migrants in breach of immigration laws.” This perception is accentuated by the Thai media, who use negative imagery to portray Burmese workers, as “unlawful”, “dangerous”, “disease carriers” and “drug traffickers.”

Working Conditions for Burmese Refugees in Thailand

Limited rights, coupled with negative social perceptions, mean that Burmese refugees are often employed in “3D jobs” – those that are rejected by the majority of Thai citizens for being dirty, difficult and dangerous. These include jobs in the fishing and fish processing industry, which require years spent away from home, as well in the construction industry, where low safety standards lead to frequent workplace accidents. Working days, for children and adults alike, can be over twelve hours long, and yet the average unskilled Burmese worker earns 50 to 80 percent less than the equivalent unskilled Thai laborer. However, for undocumented Burmese refugees, little can be said for fear of being reported to the Thai authorities. Even those with work permits have limited leverage. Permits are often tied to specific employers, therefore, if employment is terminated, the legal right to stay in Thailand is lost with immediate effect.

Difficult working conditions are often tied to poor living conditions, particularly in the construction industry where workers and their families live in temporary shelters on the building site. Here, up to 450 people live in self-built aluminum or plastic shacks, often with little or no access to water, toilets or electricity. A lack of mosquito nets and frequent rat infestations make skin and mosquito borne diseases such as dengue fever, commonplace. Yet, gaining access to health care is difficult. Few facilities are provided by the construction company and local hospitals refuse to treat Burmese refugees without an identity card showing specific details.

Access to Education for Burmese Refugees in Thailand

Education alone has the potential to break this cycle of poverty, but according to Thai Government policy, Burmese refugees can only attend school up until the age of twelve. After this, unless they have achieved full identity card status, which is rare, or an applicable hill tribe classification, children are refused entry to exams and therefore cannot gain any formal qualifications. Furthermore, education gained in Burma is not recognized in Thailand. Consequently, even if a child has completed secondary school in Burma, they still have to start their Thai education from primary school to gain the qualifications needed to move beyond the unskilled, low paid jobs.

Government policy is accentuated by family expectations. From the age of twelve, parents expect their children either to work or to look after their younger siblings so that they can take the second jobs needed to make ends meet.

Thai Freedom House – Providing a Lifeline to Burmese Refugees In Thailand

Thai Freedom House provides a much needed solution to the problems faced by Burmese refugees in Thailand. By offering evening education classes, children can still meet the expectations of their families whilst gaining the necessary skills to progress beyond unskilled labor. In addition to language and arts, children are taught how to fit into Thai society, reducing incidences of discrimination and police trouble. Thai Freedom House also provides mosquito nets, beds and clothing to construction camps throughout Chiang Mai, making life inside the camps a little more bearable for the workers and their families.

Donate To Charity Online and Help Burmese Refugees

Thai Freedom House is run by volunteers and is reliant on personal individual donations and donations from those who donate to charity online. Even a small donation can make a huge difference to the lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand. For example, just 25USD will provide our young students with fresh soy milk for one month. If you would like to donate to charity online then why not consider donating to Thai Freedom House. You can make a one off donation or set up a monthly payment schedule of an amount you can afford (link to page). Alternatively, you can help out by coming to volunteer for Thai Freedom House. Volunteers undertake a range of tasks from teaching English to social networking and running arts workshops. To learn more about volunteering for Thai Freedom House click here (link to page). Thank you for your support.


  1. Bernice Johnson: The Shan: Refugees without a camp
  2. Burmese Women’s Union: Caught between Two Hells
  3. Human Rights Documentation Unit: Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008
  4. Observatory Series: Perceptions of Borders and Human Migration
  5. The Irrawaddy: A Dangerous, Difficult Life
  6. The Nation Opinion: Stop the Abuse of Migrant Workers.
This entry was posted in Burma News, Thai Freedom House Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted June 25, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    I have som clothing that I’d like to donate. Where are you located?


  2. Juliette
    Posted August 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Have seen your details on Trip Advisor the work you are doing is great, have you considered posting you details on I will be in the area in November and would very much like to bring an educational gift maybe a World Map?

  3. Avery Aurand
    Posted October 10, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    Thai Freedom House has been a great help to me! I’m doing a project in school about the struggles and lives of Burmese refugees. I really want to expose what these people are going through and how we can help! Thanks for all the research, insights, information, etc. :)

  4. Posted February 13, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I just stopped by to view this website. It seems to
    be really interesting and I enjoyed browsing it, thanks for the good writing!

    • Thai Freedom House
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your comment and taking the time to look through our site. We will finally be making some updates soon, so please come back and check in a few weeks.

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  1. […] as migrants in breach of immigration laws” says Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UNHCR (more info on living conditions of Burmese refugees here). The Thai media aggravates the negative public perception of refugees and migrants alike by […]

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