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The suicide rates in a refugee camp along the Thai-Myanmar border have risen to three times the world average during the past two years, according to a report issued Monday by a UN-affiliated migration agency.
According to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, only one person killed themselves in the Mae La camp in Trat province from June 2014 to May 2015, but 14 people took their lives the next year during the same period and 14 again in the year after that.
IOM’s data indicates a suicide rate of 36.6 per 100,000 people for the past two years, a rate three times higher than the WHO’s global average of 10.7 per 100,000. As for attempted suicides in the same three-year period, the report said the figure rose less dramatically, from 30 to 31 and 35, respectively.
IOM acknowledged that better monitoring may have be a factor in their reported surge in suicide rates.
“The rates have increased dramatically from 2014 onwards, which may be due to the fact that surveillance and registration systems started to be more comprehensively applied,” the IOM report said.
Preeda Fungtrakoonchai, who heads the Mae La Camp where the study was conducted, said the figures used in the IOM report were simply wrong and denied there has been a spike in suicides there.
The figures he supplied for the total number of suicides from January 2015 to present – 28 people – were the same as IOM’s count for roughly the same period, but were based on different spans of time. Eight people killed themselves in calendar year 2015, 18 in 2016 and two so far this year, he said.
Nonetheless, Preeda, who works under the Department of Local Administration, complained IOM’s data was inaccurate and said its representatives only met with him briefly last month.
“They only interviewed me and didn’t tell me they’re going to write a report. I chatted with them for half an hour, but then things turned out like this,” Preeda said. He said he’s told IOM its figures were inaccurate since the report’s release yesterday.
Reached for a response Tuesday to Preeda’s objections, IOM representatives had no ready answers. They said they would make inquiries with their superiors and respond quickly, but no such response was forthcoming as of press time.
An undated photo of the Mae La refugee camp in Trat province.
Since the early 1980s, refugees from Myanmar have arrived through Thailand’s western border, chiefly in Tak province. The report noted that although Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it adopted an open-door policy and allowed refugees from Myanmar to stay in the country. Most were fleeing ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s southeast and Burmese military persecution. Many are ethnic Karen. IOM said it received special permission from the government to conduct interviews and studies in the camp focusing on the growing suicide rate.
The report added that suicide rates for 2015 and 2016 inside the camp are “significantly higher than the rates in Thailand in general,” which the Public Health Ministry put at 6.47 per 100,000 people, or roughly one-sixth of the rates in Mae La.
The IOM assessment, presented on the eve of today’s World Refugee Day, said there were no family counseling services inside all nine camps, including Mae La, which altogether house more than 100,000 refugees from Myanmar.
Asked why there’s no counseling in the camps, Dana Graber Ladek, IOM’s chief of mission in Bangkok, cited a decrease in international funding and the fact the Thai government has always seen the camp “as a temporary situation and not a permanent situation,” so it are is reluctant to set up such services and would rather close the camps as soon as possible.
Sally Thompson, chairwoman of the Committee for Coordination of Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand said that since the May 2014 military coup, more control has been exerted and conditions inside the camps have become “more restricted.”
IOM cited distress, hopelessness, substance abuse, domestic conflict and domestic violence as contributing factors in the suicides and attempted suicides.
“All participants report a high level of distress, due to issues related with lack of freedom of movement, uncertainty about the future, decrease in food rations, worries about the fact that the camp will be closed and they will be forced into repatriation while resettlement is slowing down, economic hardship and lack of educational opportunities for the young ones, with increase in alcohol and anti-social behavior among their children,” the 22-page report said.
Preeda disputed those findings also, saying that family conflicts – not despair – were responsible for most suicides in the camp. He said the camp is Thailand’s largest with than 20,000 refugees from Myanmar, 65 percent being Karen and the rest Burman and Burman muslims.
The IOM report, “Assessment of Suicide Risks and Factors in a Refugee Camp in Thailand,” cited no specific cases due to the organization’s policy.
Spokesman Reuben Lim Wende said the camps are off-limits to the media. He also would not identify contacts within the Interior Ministry with knowledge of the camps and policy decisions affecting them, citing the “sensitivity” of the issue.
The report did say that those interviewed for the study said community support and the love for families and the hope for their future, which includes resettlement, good education and the possibility to give their parents better future makes their life worth living.
IOM said it conducted postmortem reviews of 29 of those who killed themselves by interviewing their family members, as well as looking at 20 of the 96 attempted suicides.