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.
Posted in Burma News, Thai Freedom House Blog | 6 Comments

Thai Freedom House cools off

Temperatures have been soaring in Northern Thailand the last couple of months and the rainy season is no where in sight.  We decided to take a Sunday off and go to a nearby waterfall on Doi Suthep to cool off.  The water was low but we still found a few swimming holes and shade to have a picnic.

Read More »

Posted in Field Trip | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment



On Dec. 5 we had a unique opportunity to visit an organic farm project outside of the city limits.  It was set up by an organization called NEED Network for Education and Economic Development.  They came to our school on Friday evening and talked to our students about their idea of agriculture and what it means to them.  After some interactive activities and discussion we were prepared to go to visit their farm the next day.
Saturday started early at 8am where we all met up to go to the farm which was about 30 minutes outside of town.  You could feel the excitement as we all crammed into a tour van for the trip.  When we arrived we were handed big floppy hats to shield us from the sun, gloves to protect us from blisters and armed with cameras to document our day.  We started with a lesson on basic ecology and how to make compost and EM, then we went out in the field to get our hands dirty.  We made compost, EM and learned how to extract seeds from various plants, then planted seedlings to take back to the school and a tomato, chilli or eggplant seedling for each student to take home in a pot.  We returned to Thai Freedom House in the evening, tired and full of stories from our day which also included a wonderful homemade, vegetarian lunch, a traditional song exchange and a wild run through the dry rice fields.  We will return to visit the farm again and see how our plants are growing in February.

Posted in Class Update, Education | 2 Comments

Homemade Books

Last week we made some books with the students:

After a few lessons about food, playing games with words and making worksheets, we thought: let’s do something else! So we made a food-book with the students. The students looked in magazines and cut out food-pictures. They had to stick it on the right page: drinks on drinks page; beef on the meat page and a salad on the fruit and vegetables page. S, one of the students, even said “barbeque”, when he looked at a picture of a meatstick on a grill, while we hadn’t mentioned the word “barbeque” in class!  Making the food-book was a big success. The students like to read and look in their self-made book.

Last week we made another book, this one was about action words. We started reading a book about a Wizard who was kneeling, twisting and twirling and disappeared in the end. When we asked the students if they liked to make a book like that with their own pictures, they were very enthusiastic. They became even more enthusiastic when we started to take pictures. We asked “Who can dance?” and they all started to dance. We choose three girls and made a nice picture.  We also did it with jumping, squatting, singing, running, making a handstand. It didn’t take long for them to take the initiative and introduce some actions we didn’t think about when we were making the lesson plan. That was great! We had a lot of fun… and made a lot of noise. Hopefully we didn’t disturb the other classes. But… you have to speak when you are learning a language! So I think it’s a good sign when English class is a bit noisy.
After developing the pictures we made a nice book. Every page has a picture with a different move and the sentences are written in English, Thai and Shan. We made a copy for all of the students, so they can bring their books home. It’s nice for them to have some pictures, but it’s even more a good language exercise: they will read the book again and show other people, therefore reinforcing their learning and teaching someone else in their house.  Most of our students don’t have books or written material in any language in their house so we were happy to create something tri-lingual that they could take home and keep.

Making books with students is a great way to learn (and teach) English. You can make a book in almost every subject. The students use the words a lot while making a book. They enjoy doing it, and are even more proud when they see the result at the end. They made their own book and it looks great!

-Dorien and Judith

Posted in Art & Music Workshops, Class Update | Leave a comment

Baby Sunday

This is Apyou and his son Atit (Sunday).  His wife died a couple of months ago and since then he has not had anyone to watch the baby while he goes to work so he lost his room and was living in a plastic makeshift tent when I saw him selling flowers in a bar at night.  I wondered where the mother was because I remember her selling flowers when she was pregnant and he told me that she had died of a heart problem in the hospital but he didn’t know anymore details than that.  He doesn’t have any family to help him because he ran away from the Burmese army when he was 10 and they took him to be a soldier, he hasn’t been back since.  His wife’s family is far away and he does not know how to contact them.
He also has a 9 year old son in a missionary school in Chiang Dao and he is trying to save up enough money to go and tell him that his mother is dead.
Currently he is living in the store room at Thai Freedom House  and we are supplying him with food and formula for the baby but he desperately wants to work, he can garden and do construction; if you know anyone who might have a job for him please let me know.  Also, we need help supporting him until he is on his feet again, if you or someone you know would like to help with formula expenses or has anything for a 4 mo. old baby boy you can drop it off at the school on Moon Muang, Soi 7, Chiang Mai, across from Wat Lam Chang.
You may also make a donation on our website

Thank you

Posted in Thailand, Volunteering for Thai Freedom House | Leave a comment

Teaching and Learning English As A Second Language

When we were kids we all learned to speak a language in a very natural way. We listened to our parents who spoke to us with very high voices, saying “oetsiekoetsie” and things like that. After a while we began to use our own voice, making different kind of sounds, and at the age of 1 most of us said their first real word. And then it goes fast! We learned one word after another and at the age of 5 we knew thousands of words and we were able to make sentences, using the right grammar (most of the time…). That all without following classes at such a young age! Isn’t that amazing?

I think most of us have encountered that learning a second language is a different and way more difficult process. Remember the vocabulary lists in high school you had to repeat time after time? And when you didn’t repeat them for a week you forgot most of the words… The innate ability to learn how to speak a language seems to disappear after the age of 7 years old. The older you are, the harder it gets.

Here at Thai Freedom House the students are learning English and Thai. “Shan” is their native language. You see it’s hard for them and I really can imagine that. It took me more than a week just to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Thai. Every new word I hear in Thai, I have to repeat more than a thousand times, and maybe if I continue to repeat the word again and again, I will remember the word (and the meaning) at the end of the week. But most of the time I fail… One of the first English lessons I did with the young adults group was about clothes. I taught them the names of different kind of clothes. We did some games with the words and the clothes, the students used the words a lot, so I was very disappointed that they didn’t remember ANY of the words the week after.  I suppose I learned that they also need to repeat and review the words everyday before they can remember them.

Pronunciation is also very hard for them. When we are practicing pronunciation, I can’t keep the smile off my face, it’s so funny. For example: short and shirts. They couldn’t make the different sounds. They both sounded like “short” and it took them a while to find the right sound. So we sat there making sounds like “oooooooooo” and “iiiiiiiiiiiii”. Quite funny, but after a while they found the right sound! Or what about saying the word “scarf”, I think that’s impossible for them… And the other way around: I’m having a hard time to pronounce their names right. I’m lucky they use nicknames!

And that’s just the speaking part… We also want them to learn how to read and write. If they know how to read and write in English, they have more chances to find a better job than now. That’s why we do a lot of exercises with  ABC. But just to know how the letter sounds, doesn’t make you able to read. That takes much more practice and phonics! Last week I had a new girl in my group, she didn’t know anything of the ABC, but she was very eager (and shy), she copied the words I wrote on the whiteboard exactly. When you saw her notebook, you would really believe she could read and write. But when you asked her to read what she wrote, she couldn’t.

It’s a big challenge to teach them as much as possible and also make it enjoyable and fun to learn.  I’m here for 6 weeks, still 3 to go. That’s a very short time to see some progress, but I hope I will!  Either way I am sure another eager volunteer will come along and follow the curriculum and they will all reach their goals!


Posted in ESL education, Learning Languages, Teaching, Volunteering for Thai Freedom House | 2 Comments

YOGA! with Mel

At Thai Freedom House we not only stretch our minds but our bodies with periodic yoga classes with visiting yoginis!  This time Mel Cambell who teaches yoga at Wild Rose Yoga Studio and Sauna in Chiang Mai (right around the corner from us) came by with her daughter to give us a good stretch, a good laugh and the quietest moment I have ever seen at TFH with the meditation at the end of the session.  Check out the photos and if you are interested or know of another yogini in the area that would like to come by for a workshop, contact me at or check out our website at for more information.  Thank you!

Posted in Class Update, Education | 1 Comment

Visiting Free Bird Cafe

Hi there–

I am sitting in my favorite and most colorful cafe’s in all of Thailand, Free Bird Cafe.

I am spending time here Mentoring clients and Coaching an Interior Design Company in Bangkok. It’s the perfect office with children’s paintings every where, art work, toys and the dreams of hopes of children painted on the walls and I know that 100% of what I spend here goes to support Thai Freedom House.

Freedom House is a non-government, not-for-profit organization dedicated to assisting refugees in Thailand. Their work includes helping refugees from Burma who have come to Thailand as well as Indigenous Hill Tribe families. The Shan, Burmese and Hill Tribe families don’t have the same rights as the Thai people and there is a real sense of joy from the staff and the community of volunteers that have come here to help from all around the world.

But unlike most cafe’s there is some thing special going on here, the Burmese people working here are students of Freedom House and you can feel the heart felt service, because they know that this cafe is helping the school and their Shan brothers and sisters to get a free education and to me that sincerity makes a world of difference.

In this space I can feel the energy and excitement of what is happening here and as a result of this creative abundance I am able to open my mind and be in the right head space to understand and meet the needs of my clients. For me being in this colorful and magical environment I have realized how much of our humanity has lost its ability to work with each other, instead of competing with each other we need to co-operate and this is a fine example of a community in action.

So from my time here in this Extra-Ordinary Community I have made it my mission now to work more with people, to respect the friends that I have and to build on the Freedom Foundation for the next generation to come, as we are all part of one family and we all need to co-operate as one Universal Humanity and make the future bright for our children.

Andrew Morrissey.

Posted in Art & Music Workshops, Chiang Mai, Free Bird Cafe, Thailand, Volunteering, Volunteering for Thai Freedom House | 1 Comment

Recycling Workshop

Here at Freedom House we recycle a lot. Nothing will end in the trash can. For everything we’ll find a next purpose.

Back at home, for us that’s Holland, we wouldn’t think about saving a broken parasol. Why save it if you don’t use it anymore…? Just buy a new one! During our trip trough Thailand we already saw all the “trash” people keep under their houses. They save e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, because it might be useful in the future. First we thought “why don’t they just throw it away, it looks awful” especially at holiday bungalows. Now we know they really might use it again.
I, as a teacher primary school, do feel now a little bit ashamed as I think of all the papers and things I have thrown away back home, just because I didn’t have a good place to keep it.

We see now that you can do a lot with a little bit of creative thinking. Another volunteer, Madz, for example, was ironing plastic bags. We’ll use the hard plastic tonight for making earrings.
Or what about using colorful pages from magazines to pack presents from the shop?

If you save a lot, you need a lot space to keep it. Because there was almost no more space and we wanted to teach the students about recycling, we decided to have a workshop about it.  So last Tuesday, 10th of November there was a recycling workshop by CCT.  We showed the students what you can do with trash that you normally will throw away.  One of the volunteers explained what recycling is about and how it works.  Then the students had to write down why they think recycling is important and how you can use trash again.
There were many good ideas, like “putting all groceries in one bag at the market keeps our environment clean”.

Before the student started to make things from empty bottles, cans, paper boxes and many other things we showed some examples because the student are not familiar with these kind of projects.

They enjoyed making things. There were many different and beautiful things made.
Time went fast. Like they say “time flies if you’re having fun”.

We hope the students are now inspired to use things again and again…

Dorien and Judith, current volunteers (six weeks)

Posted in Volunteer Story | Leave a comment

Putting Studies into Action

University is great. It educates us, it gives us the credentials to work good jobs and do great things with our lives, it looks good on our resume. But how long can you sit in a classroom in the middle of nowhere Ohio and actually learn about the conflict and strife in Africa, or Mecca and Israel, two of the holiest places in the world for Muslims and Jews, or about the horrible situation in Burma? How can you really learn about these things when you are so far removed from them and across the globe from them? Last year, sitting in my nice, heated dorm room as the snow fell outside of my window onto the beautiful Kenyon College campus, I had this realization. I am a history and religious studies double major learning about events that seem so distant to me. I had to get out, I had to study in a different country and experience and witness the religion and history of a country first hand.

I sent out my study abroad applications to Israel and Thailand – two places I had visited in the past, but only briefly and as a vacationer, but both places I loved. In Israel I could study my own religion and be engulfed in the incredible spirituality that makes Israel such a Holy land, for not only Jews, but many other religions and people as well. In Thailand I could study a religion different from my own, one I knew little about. I would also be exposed to more volunteer opportunities, really getting my hands dirty and having the experience I wanted. There is also such an interesting history of Thailand – not only is the culture so deeply rooted in past history and traditions, but I also find it fascinating how Thai history is so closely related to other countries close-by. Obviously, I ended up choosing Thailand and after telling my program I wanted to be placed somewhere teaching English, I was ecstatic when I learned I would not only be teaching English, but I would be teaching English at an educational center for Burmese Refugees. Embarrassingly, I knew little about the situation in Burma. I asked my dad, a history and politics bluff, for some information and together we did research on the issues there. Incredibly saddened after doing this research, I hoped that by taking a Burma/Myanmar politics class while studying here in Thailand, learning about the social and political issues in Thailand, and volunteering at Freedom House, I would not only learn about the situation through academics, but I would truly realize the situation through working first hand with those who had and who continued to suffer from the devastating problems in Burma. I also new that instead of merely gaining knowledge about the situation, I could actually effect someone’s life, even if it was just on a small scale.

Since I have been here in Thailand, taking the class on Burma/Myanmar politics with a professor who is a political activist who has been exiled from Burma, taking another class on all the social and political issues in Thailand – which of course includes the situation in Burma – and volunteering here at Freedom House, I truly feel like I am gaining something much more valuable than had I been sitting in the library at my college in Ohio learning about things that I could never truly know, unless experiencing them first hand. So here I am, feeling like I can actually give something back to those who I have read books and articles about. Now I do not only know their history, I know them as real live people as well.

I have only been here for two months, but my time here at Freedom House has been truly amazing. I love working with the children – they are bright, beautiful, and above all else, they are children and what child should be denied an education and the chance to just be a kid? Why should their ethnicity or “mother- country” (if you can call Burma that) dictate their ability to receive a solid education? Freedom House is incredible because it does not only give these children access to an education, but it allows them to just goof around, to be children, to have fun. At home, they have to take on many responsibilites, responsibilites that I could never imagine having had when I was ten years old. At Freedom House, they can just be little kids. To me, this is so incredibly valuable.

I know that giving back isn’t about making yourself feel good, but I cannot help but feel so lucky and privileged that I am able to have this experience — incorporating my studies into actual experiences and hopefully touching someone’s life.

Here are some photos I took of the children… just being kids!

Ting – bright, artistic and the only boy in class… in other words, the flirt and trouble-maker! He is a great kid.

This is Dow – Dow is shy but has so much love and effection for everyone. She is so beautiful and a quick learner

Mai – Mai is very intelligent and her English is really excelling. She is a leader and the other children look up to her. She is so sweet as well.

This is On – On is silly and fun and really enjoys learning. She always brings great energy and excitement to class and her passion for learning as well as art is amazing to watch.

Knowledge + experience = the best education!


Posted in Education, ESL education, Volunteering for Thai Freedom House | Leave a comment
  • Thai Freedom House on Twitter

  • Join the Newsletter Mailing List


© 2010 Thai Freedom House | Sitemap | Proudly designed and hosted by Mick Creates