Exploited for tourism?


New Zealand is asking Thai authorities to explain why it has refused to let a group of Kayan “long-necked” refugees from Burma to leave Thailand to start new lives.

New Zealand agreed two years ago to accept two families of Kayan people – whose women traditionally wear a number of brass rings around their unnaturally long necks – as refugees, but Thai authorities will not give them exit visas.

According to a BBC report from the area in Mae Hong Son province on Wednesday, it is suspected that the families are being kept in Thailand because of the central role they play in the local tourism industry.

The BBC said three Kayan villages close to the Burmese border were a major lure for foreign tourists and quoted a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as saying, “It’s absolutely a human zoo.”

Kitty McKinsey said some 20,000 other Burmese refugees had recently been allowed to move to third countries, but Thailand was not letting a group of 20 Kayans who had been accepted as refugees by New Zealand and Finland leave.

“We don’t understand why these 20 are not allowed to start new lives,” she told the BBC. “The Thai authorities are treating them in a special way.”

The BBC quoted a 23-year-old woman called Zember as saying the UNHCR told her family in 2005 that they had been accepted by New Zealand.

“I was so happy,” she said. “They tell me a house is already waiting for us in New Zealand.”

The New Zealand foreign ministry spokeswoman told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa: “we have raised our concerns with the Thai foreign ministry. We are waiting for a response.”