First published in Bangkok Post
How communities of Muslim migrants are doing all they can to ensure proper sanitation and hygiene
For over two decades, ever since arriving in Mae Sot as migrants from Myanmar, Muslims Wahid Abdulla and Myo Aung and their families were dogged by constant ailments due largely to the squalid living conditions they found themselves in.
Conditions marked by an acute lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene contributed to not just medical issues but a sense of hopelessness as their health deteriorated.
Three years ago, things took a turn for the better when the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) introduced communities to a campaign targeting their woes -- "Wash: Water, Sanitation And Hygiene Promotion Activities".
Funded by the European Union, the campaign addresses enhanced access to water, improvements to sanitation facilities and hygiene awareness outreach, as well as spearheading the formation of Wash committees. Target communities include not just the ones residing in the Mae Sot district of Tak province, but those in Ranong and Phangnga.
Since the programme's inception, both young and old Myanmar Muslim migrants -- many illiterate and living under the poverty line -- find their mental and physical health have improved by leaps and bounds.
"In the past, we often suffered from acute diarrhoea and dengue fever," said Abdulla, 45. "We had no proper place to store clean water, and our sanitation and hygiene were at an all-time low. We did not have the know-how to go about addressing their issues because, frankly, we did not realise the conditions we lived in were what was causing the problem.
"The Wash campaign has equipped us not just with the knowledge to take charge of our surroundings but also to share this information with others."
To get to this point took time and effort by both IOM and migrant settlers, as the UN Migration Agency's assessment findings painted a grim picture of their living conditions -- beginning from their poor access to clean water, which made vulnerable low-income earners more susceptible to waterborne diseases.
Stats obtained by IOM's Water, Sanitary, and Hygiene assessment identified 1,703 Myanmar Muslims from 437 families in Mae Sot who were in a vulnerable state due to a lack of financial capacity to afford rental accommodation with basic infrastructure, such as access to the public water supply and electricity and more. Furthermore, flooding made the already-dire situation worse, as it obstructed in-pit latrine use, leading to worsening health and hygiene conditions.
As a significantly large number of them reside in makeshift homes due to financial woes, their living conditions could easily be summed up as substandard.
To resolve these issues, IOM has assisted with construction of water infrastructure as well as renovation of community and school toilets and sanitary facilities. To improve access to clean water, water-storage containers have been distributed to communities.
Myo Aung, 52, who runs a grocery story, conceded that today there is definitely a lower risk of his family and neighbours getting affected by waterborne diseases as well as mosquito borne diseases such as dengue fever, thanks to better access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
"What this [Wash campaign] has further done is improved community relations with local Thais. In the past, locals used to complain about the stench that came from our communities. They were so fed up that they called the immigration police to catch us.
"Cleanliness and good hygiene have also improved our emotional health. Our lives are still chaotic, but the tension one lives with in a filthy environment drags you deeper into depression."
Myo Aung continued, sharing an unfortunate incident in his community wherein a neighbour accidentally nicked himself on the tip of a contaminated syringe while scavenging without protective gloves, later dying.
"In the past we had no knowledge of recycling or how to separate garbage by using gloves to protect ourselves. Unnecessary fatalities can now be averted because of the know-how we have for protecting ourselves from such incidents." Abdulla said this newfound knowledge has helped many neighbours and family members to supplement their income.
"Most of our homes are makeshift, so before Wash was introduced to us, we did things the old way. Which turned out to be more of a menace to us, especially when it came to lack of an efficient solid-waste-management system. Now that the situation has changed for the better, I see the quality of my life has improved both physically and emotionally," said the Koran teacher.
The IOM has also helped empower their communities and enabled them to take charge of their living conditions with the help of Wash committees, comprised of volunteers from affected communities. San San Win, a community volunteer and member of Wash who provides training on hygiene and sanitation, said she uses this information to educate her community and spearheads its efforts to organise its own cleaning initiatives.
Today, all 10 communities in Mae Sot and Phop Phra, also in Tak province, conduct their own community-cleaning activities on a weekly basis with the help of community volunteers such as her.
"IOM established the campaign to inspire change, and three years down the line, that is exactly what it has done. It has empowered communities and enabled them to take charge of their living environments.
"Female members of our communities have so far played an instrumental role in encouraging their neighbours to keep their environment clean despite occasional resistance from some," said San San.
"I tell my neighbours that regardless of whether you live in a makeshift or permanent residence, there is no excuse from now on to pay less attention to sanitation and hygiene procedures in our living quarters because we have the know-how and support. This I say because standard operating procedures are established to enable communities to seek assistance from relevant governing authorities when dealing with sanitation-related issues."
Having resided in Thailand for more than two decades, San San Win said that Myanmar's Muslim migrants are better-informed than in the past, and better able to receive and access services offered by the Thai government.
While there are still a number of issues Myanmar Muslims face as migrants in Thailand, she prefers to look to the future with optimism and hope.
"On behalf of my community, I would like to say just how glad I am to see this campaign help our people to have better health and quality of life, despite the fact that for many of us it is still a squatter colony. Many still don't have running water and electricity. However, this is a good start to something better for all of us in the near future."