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Santi Siritheerajesd: A Smile from Refugees…is a Reward for my Hard Work

Santi Siritheerajesd, right, at work in a refugee camp.


For the past decade, areas in Tham Hin village in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province and Ton Yang village in Kanchanaburi province have been turned into temporary shelters for refugees from the Thai- Burmese border, who have fled infighting and killing stemming from politics. The refugees - male andfemale, children and the elderly - live in a cramped space. Each day, they cook distributed food supplies and wait for a chance to return home or resettle in a third country. Today’s life is no different from that of yesterday. The world of the refugee stands still.

Santi Siritheerajesd, a UNHCR official who has been working for the refugees for more than six years, has used his best endeavours to move their world forward. The smile of happiness and the hope of resettlement is a great reward for him. “I first worked as a legal advisor at an international law firm, then I moved to work as a legal advisor for the Bangkok refugee center,” he said. “I later took a volunteer job as an assistant tothe protection unit of the UNHCR regional office in Bangkok. I spent the next two years working for the Jesuit Refugee Service Thailand. I am currently working for the UNHCR field office in Kanchanaburi. Our office works with the Thai government in taking care of and protecting refugees in temporary shelters in Tham Hin village in Ratchaburi province and on Yang village in Kanchanaburi province.

“The UNHCR mission is to coordinate with the public sector and private agencies, as well as the refugee committee and refugee communities, in protecting and assisting refugees in the areas of education, medical services, public health and legal and justice proceedings in cases where the refugees become the victims of abuse or crimes. We also ensure good understanding of the UNHCR role among public agencies at both the district and provincial levels.” The field work is demanding, and Mr. Santi has to travel for much of the time to visit the shelters. “At present, Thailand is home to 90,000 war refugees in nine temporary shelters in four provinces,” he said. “Most of them are minorities or those fleeing attacks or severe human rights violations by the Myanmar government. They fled to Thailand and were designated to temporary shelters.

A child in Mae La refugee camp in Tak province. Photo by Santi Siritheerajesd

They received limited education. The monthly food ration comprises of mostly dried food, without meat or vegetables. Such restrictions have resulted in deteriorated living conditions. Stress and pressure trigger abuse. Sexual abuse is the main problem among the refugees.” Witnessing hardship and fully understanding the problems inside the camps have inspired Santi to give his all to help every refugee start a new life. 

“The goal of the UNHCR is to protect the refugees and offer lasting solutions to their problems,” he said. “The best international solution is to send the refugees home on a voluntary basis when the situation there is peaceful and safe. Another solution is to integrate them into the country of asylum. The last is resettlement in third countries. Thailand adopts the last strategy. The US welcomes the highest number of refugees. Some refugees move to Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Ireland and Scandinavian countries.” The UNHCR has made consistent progress, with tens of thousands of refugees able to start their lives anew.

“Many liken our job to merit-making as we are devoted to helping others. I think it is true. When we look at how the refugees - children, female and the elderly - lead their lives, I have no second thoughts about why I choose to work here. Refugee problems are complex and we cannot do away with all of them. But if we can ease the suffering of the refugees and make their lives a bit easier, I am satisfied with the job done and can even forget the troubles or the trip I have been through.”

“The concrete success is when the refugees get treated. Many have resettled and begun new lives. They have no compensation for us, just a frank smile and a warm hug. For me … that is happiness right there, not what we get but to see them happier.”

Though we might not all be able to land a job like Santi, we can play a part in UNHCR work. “You can send money or other donations to the UNHCR,” he said. “Our budget comes from the UNHCR and direct donations. In an abstract way, just try to understand the refugees. They live in restricted shelters. Some children were born here and never experience the real world outside. I hope society will look at them fairly and kindly. They fled hardship in a search of better lives and feel grateful to our country and His Majesty the King, just like the Thais. The right mindset definitely helps.”

Children smile brightly at UNHCR officers. Photo by UNHCR/R.Arnold