While there has been much celebration in the media recently about the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her return to politics in Burma, the plight of up to three million Burmese refugees in Thailand has received little attention. In recent months aid agencies report that one third of these are children, and many of them are now suffering malnutrition at epidemic levels.
In the Mae Sot area, community organisations are in touch with more than 100 schools. Many of these are informal, although an increasing number of schools are registered with the Thai Ministry of Education as ‘Learning Centres’. They range in size from 30 or so pupils up to nearly 800. There are probably between 10,000 to 15,000 children in total. About 3,500 live in boarding houses since their parents are absent, either still in Burma, working elsewhere in Thailand, or dead.
For some years the boarding house population has been sustained by food distributed by the Mae Tao Clinic, under its ‘Dry Food Program’. The program aimed to provide six items (rice, oil, beans, tinned fish, salt and ‘sweet powder’, a flavour enhancer) to each of the 3,500 boarding house children every month. The total budget required was 12 million baht per annum (£240,000) provided in the past by one major donor supported by a few smaller contributors, including Thai Children’s Trust under the patronage of Archbishop Vincent Nichols.
Although hardly a healthy or an adequate diet, the basic rations provided by the Dry Food Program are the only food some children see. For others, it has been a foundation on which NGOs have been able to build lunch programmes, mushroom huts, school farms as a supplement. Now the whole fragile structure of food delivery to the children on the border is in near collapse because the Dry Food Programme is in danger of closing.
Income to the Mae Tao Clinic in this calendar year is a staggering 11 million baht (£220,000) down against income in the same period last year as donors reduce commitments to projects on the border and support new projects inside Burma. As a result the Dry Food Program is seven million baht (£140,000) short of its required budget. As a short term expedient rations have been cut to four items; beans and sugar are no longer included. Another donor has taken over supplying some schools, so the program has been reduced to 2,900 children. This reduces the cost from 1 million to 750,000 baht each month. But there is only enough cash to pay for July.
Andrew Scadding, director of the Thai Children's Trust, said: "Our great fear is that without the scanty supplies they receive through the Dry Food Program, some of these vulnerable, hungry children will be pushed over the very thin line which separates malnutrition from starvation.
"Thai Children’s Trust will redouble our efforts through our HungerBusters campaign and through events to ensure this vital supply of food continues to reach migrant children."
To help feed the children see: http://www.thaichildrenstrust.org.uk/hungerbusters/