The New Humanitarian spoke with three women in Je Yang about life in long-term displacement, their hopes for peace, and how the coronavirus has forced communities in Myanmar’s northern borderlands to contend with new worries.
Interviews demonstrated how women in Myanmar’s Kachin State displacement camps are finding new ways to support their families as coronavirus restrictions squeeze livelihoods and aid.
The women say they are barely able to meet basic food needs, buy soap or masks, or pay for their children to return to school. Humanitarian access has been restricted for years. Je Yang, Kachin’s largest internal displacement camp, holds 8,700 people. They live in cramped shelters perched along mountainous terrain near the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) base of Laiza.
Before the pandemic, the women all earned a living mainly working on banana, coffee, and peppercorn farms and small construction sites in China’s Yunnan Province, returning in the evenings to collect water and cook for their families. But Yunnan closed its borders with Myanmar in March, putting many people out of work. Most now struggle to find any income at all on the Kachin side.
It has always been difficult to make ends meet and feed their families, the women interviewed said. The coronavirus border closures and the loss of jobs have made things worse, they added:
After the border with Yunnan province closed, Nan Doi began working on a peppercorn farm near Je Yang. Although she’s paid roughly the same as she earned in China, work is only available two days a week. The harvesting season is about to end, and Nan Doi does not know where she will go next.
Lashi Lu has been unable to find work since the pandemic, she has been foraging for edible plants and leaves. But sometimes her family only eats plain rice with oil and salt.
Women who spoke to TNH said they try to follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines, but donated soap and masks are running out and they cannot afford to buy more.
Myanmar has reported more than 300 cases nationwide as of 2 July, though testing has been limited. No COVID-19 cases have been reported in KIO-controlled areas.
On 11 June, a nurse responsible for screening returning migrant workers at a government-controlled border gate in Kachin tested positive for COVID-19, sparking renewed alarm in border areas. Although no one coming into contact with her has yet tested positive, the KIO has increased movement restrictions, further limiting livelihood options.
Containing an outbreak in IDP camps would be difficult. Each shelter houses multiple families, and water and sanitation facilities are communal. In Je Yang, there are 57 bathing areas and 273 latrines for 8,700 people.
The KIO has formed a COVID-19 prevention committee, and has worked with local aid groups to build hand-washing stations and share health safety messages. But healthcare and coronavirus treatment options are limited in areas under KIO control.