International UK-based churches development agency Christian Aid are focusing their Christmas appeal on the 42 million people who are displaced, driven from their homes by disaster, war, persecution or hunger.
Actress and model Lily Cole has travelled to refugee camps to express her support for Christian Aid's work.
Cole visited the Nai Soi Camp in Mae Hong Son in Thailand, three miles from the Burmese border. Inhabited by 15,000 people, the camp is one of nine along the Thai-Burmese border housing Burmese refugees.
Christian Aid has been working with its partner organisation, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) since 1985, providing food and shelter for the 145,000 refugees living in these camps. The refugees themselves manage the camp.
Christian Aid insists that, “Few refugees live such hidden lives as the Burmese in Thailand”.
They point out that, for over 60 years, the conflict in eastern Burma has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Since 1984, many have been fleeing to Thailand in order to escape persecution, enforced labour and fighting. These families struggle to survive, dependent upon aid.
The Thai authorities are not signatories to the UN Convention on refugees which means the refugees are confined to the camps, with little opportunity for earning a living.
“Some of the refugees have lived in these camps for 26 years,” said Cole, “It’s a difficult idea to get my head around”.
She added, “The camps offer a refuge for people who have nowhere else in the world to feel safe and secure. If the funds were removed there would be nowhere for them to go. It’s frightening. There wouldn’t be this space filled with so many children laughing and playing.”
She described the work of Christian Aid and TBBC as “vital”.
TBBC’s training workshops help people learn new skills. They also develop productive ways for people to earn money inside the camps, such as employing women as weavers which allows them to buy essentials such as soap, clothes and extra food.
“Life in Burma was my farm and my house,” explained Kay Roh, a refugee living in the camp since he was identified as an opponent by the Burmese government, “We couldn’t take any money from there when we left. Our parents are looking after the land but we can’t communicate with them. If there’s opportunity to go outside the camps, I would like to. I would like to find a job to earn money for my family.”
At the end of her visit, Cole said it had been “one of the most moving trips of my life”.
She said she was “very inspired by the work I saw and the people I met. Christian Aid offers these refugees hope and some semblance of normality”.
She added, “They collaborate to make sure these people have food, work, and somewhere to call home. The shelter and food programmes are essentially keeping 145,000 people alive every day, and Christian Aid is one of the organisations enabling that. They are also trying to come up with solutions to try and make these communities more self-sufficient. This is a very worthwhile cause and I’m very proud to be supporting Christian Aid’s Christmas appeal.”