Friday, December 16, 2011

Mae La Refugee Camp

“Those who know when to fight and when not to fight are victorious.” - Sun Tzu

I try to keep these words in mind as a humanitarian worker. It is always bitter for photojournalists to admit that they were unable to achieve a story and document a social issue because of the overpowering forces that be. But that is often the reality of my work; I cannot always gain access to a region in critical need of international awareness. In this case, I’m referring to my ability to enter and cover the Mae La refugee camp along the Thai/Myanmar border.

With 40,000 - 80,000 people calling the Mae La camp home, it has become the largest refugee camp in Thailand. The camp, with no running water or sewage system, seems to be an endless collection of hovels made from scavenged forest materials and crammed together as tightly as possible with some buildings actually touching each other. Thai military security around camp is very tight with outposts every 25-50 yards that adhere to a strict no journalist policy. Entry is usually only granted for teachers and medical workers with a lengthy bureaucratic application paperwork process that would take more time then I have available to me.

Being aware that I would not be granted entry I still decided, with the encouragement of a friend, to travel up to the camp to at least bear witness to the situation with my own eyes. Of course, once I reached the camp, a group of Burmese children ran up to the barbed wire fence curious to see the foreigner and I couldn’t help but take out my camera and start photographing. Before I could even get a correct ISO setting the military had already started moving towards me yelling to stop, but I figured it would take them a moment to cover the distance between us. For thirty seconds I didn’t stop shooting; photographing as fast as possible before the military physically stopped me from taking any more images.

Here are the few photographs that I was able to capture within those thirty seconds.

Child refugees against a barbed wire fence.
Children lined up along the camp boundary.
The largest refugee camp in Thailand.