Relief to Burmese refugees

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Recycled blankets donated by Finnair bring warmth and a semblance of normality to the forgotten refugee camps of northern Thailand.

This is a corner of Thailand where no tourists venture. The remote refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border are surrounded by virtually impassable mountainous jungle, a hotbed for new drug-resistant strains of malaria and dengue fever.

These camps are home to over 137,000 Burmese refugees from the indigenous Karenni and other ethnic tribes. And that’s just the official figure: illegal refugees bring the number to at least 160,000. Since 1984 they have been fleeing their homeland to escape horrific killings, enforced labour and brutal attacks on their villages.

Largely forgotten by the international community, these refugees live in overcrowded bamboo huts, struggling to survive amid squalor, deficient hygiene and dangerous flooding. Some have been displaced as long as 20 years. Confined to the camps with no opportunity to earn a living, many are afflicted by lethargy and despair.

“These families are completely dependent on aid in order to survive. Their food portions are getting smaller, because governments are reducing their development aid. They used to get rice, vegetables and salt, but now they only get rice and salt,” says Johanna Huurre from Finnish Refugee Council, an organisation that provides urgently needed literacy training in the camps.

Rare smiles

The recent arrival of six hundred blankets brought rare smiles to the faces of nursery school children at Ban Maesurin Camp. This is the second batch of recycled cabin textiles donated by Finnair after the launch of its new brand identity last December. The first shipment went to children at Ban Mai Nai Soi Camp.

But Thailand is a tropical country with average temperatures nearing thirty degrees Celsius: why donate blankets of all things? “In the north, temperatures sometimes drop as low as five degrees at night during wintertime. The blankets not only provide warmth, but they are also used as sleeping mats on the hard bamboo flooring. With malaria and respiratory diseases being common, they bring essential relief – they are genuinely needed,” affirms Huurre.

Double good deed

“Our brand renewal offered an excellent opportunity for us to recycle our textiles for a good cause,” says Kati Ihamäki, Finnair Vice President, Sustainable Development.

“We have been recycling and up-cycling for a long time with various partners. It’s a long-standing commitment. We have also been involved in numerous disaster relief projects. The refugee problem is huge and we are glad to help these people in any way we can,” she adds.

“This is a great way for Finnair to re-use materials we no longer need. Getting the shipment ready was a fun team effort, too. The Finnair Cargo Sales team in Helsinki took a break from their normal work one afternoon to pack the six hundred blankets in boxes,” says Milla Nyholm from Finnair Cargo.

Rocky road

After completion of the necessary paperwork and other practical arrangements handled in cooperation with Finnair’s forwarding agent partners, Rahtihuolinta Suomi Oy (Freight Forwarding Finland) and Trans Air Cargo Co. Ltd in Thailand, the shipment was finally ready for dispatch.

“We have had a good forwarding partnership with Finnair Cargo for several years. In this case we offered our services free of charge. Our role was to arrange export clearance with the Finnish Customs, handle the airline documentation and prepare the shipment for carriage check. Often we think there is little that one person or company can do, but if we all took even a small step to help, the situation might look very different,” says Anne Pennala, CEO of Rahtihuolinta Suomi Oy.    

The final leg of the journey was the arduous two-hour drive to the camp from Mae Hon Song. The camp is so deep in the jungle that it is barely accessible most of the year due the mudslide risk.

On arrival, the sight of happy children clutching bright-blue blankets like precious treasures brightened the day for everyone.

“We wish to thank Thailand’s Ministry of the Interior and everyone else involved for their help with this charity shipment. Finnair is proud to have made a difference with this small but important gesture,” says Nyholm.

If you have any similar recycling ideas or wish to make a donation, please visit refugee aid site

Text by Silja Kudel
Picture by Finnish Refugee Council

Published April 5, 2012

Category: Local features, Finnair Cargo, Corporate Responsibility

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