For more than a quarter century, millions of people from Myanmar have been forced to flee political repression, poverty, and ethnic persecution. With nowhere else to turn, many of these refugees settled in Thailand, their neighbor to the southeast.
A young girl pauses in her work collecting bottles from a garbage dump outside Mae Sot, a town on the Thailand-Myanmar border. She earns about $2 a day for her work. | (Peter Biro)
Migrants from Myanmar often live in decrepit apartment blocks, or self-built aluminum or wooden shacks. The accommodations often have little or no access to water, toilets, or electricity. | (Peter Biro)
Photographer Peter Biro of the International Rescue Committee spent two years documenting the stateless, as they tried to make new lives for themselves in what should have been temporary shelters and situations in Thailand.
"Living here, you are constantly reminded of their hardships," Biro says. "Migrants can be seen begging on the street, working in garbage dumps, factories, or on fishing boats."
Refugees are overwhelmingly working these undesirable jobs because the conditions are usually dangerous — and the pay is criminally low.
"Getting access to many of these workplaces (to photograph) requires a lot of negotiations," he says. "Employers often know full well that the environment leaves much to be desired in terms of safety, hygiene, and other standards."
Chit San, 23, left Myanmar's restive Karen state for Bangkok in 2011. Working in a plastics factory, he says he makes just below the $10 legal minimum daily wage. "I hardly get by," he says. "But all the young people in our village have left for Thailand anyway." | (Peter Biro)
Refugees from Myanmar work on the 34th floor of a condominium building being constructed on the outskirts of Bangkok. Thai employers seldom issue protective equipment, such as helmets and harnesses, to workers. | (Peter Biro)
A woman works in a hair salon run by migrants from Myanmar, in a Bangkok suburb. Nearly 1.5 million of the estimated 3 million refugees from Myanmar working in Thailand do so illegally, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. | (Peter Biro)
Despite how little these displaced people have, Biro found a palpable amount of compassion and hope.
"I am often invited into people's homes, and offered food and drink," he says. "I find that, more often than not, people forced to flee their homes really want to share their experiences. The Burmese are no exception. They welcomed me and shared with me not only stories of their past lives, but also of their lives now."
A man takes a shower in a high-rise apartment block in Bangkok that is home to hundreds of migrants from Myanmar. The residents often live 10 to a room. | (Peter Biro)
Many children of migrants who were born and raised in Thailand lack citizenship in Myanmar. The IRC and other aid groups try to register newborns so that they can claim their citizenship in Myanmar later in life. | (Peter Biro)
Boys play football outside Mae Sot. | (Peter Biro)
"Most young people I meet talk about wanting to change their situation, and preferably resettle in a third country — the United States, somewhere in Europe, or Australia — and study to find a proper job," Biro says. "They are often too young to remember (their time) in Myanmar, and they find they cannot fully connect with Thailand."
Of course, realizing these ambitions is a tall order; the migrants are often in Thailand illegally, and would still have to leave their family, learn a new language, and navigate yet another foreign land. But the dream of basic human rights pushes them forward.
"They just want to provide for their families in a relatively free environment," he says. "They say that they want their children to have a better future."
A woman says her prayers in her one-room home on the outskirts of Mae Sot. "I miss my home, but I have nothing to return to," she says. | (Peter Biro)