Karen legends refer to a 'river of running sand' which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen think this refers to the Gobi Desert. There are few written records of the Karen origin story. The Karen people began to inhabit what eventually became Burma about two thousand years ago. They traveled from Tibet and China and settled largely in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region of Burma. Ethnic groups around this region included the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese and Karen. When the British colonized Burma in 1886, these groups all became part of Burma.
Hundreds of thousands of Karen fled to refugee camps while many others are internally displaced persons (IDPS) within the Karen state. The refugees were concentrated in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The camps have suffered from overcrowding, disease, and periodic attacks by the Myanmar army. Many Karen are stateless and do not have access to basic human rights. Thailand does not recognize them as refugees but as illegal immigrants. Life in the refugee camps is difficult and uncertain. Refugees are not allowed to venture outside the camps, and can be arrested if caught. They apply for resettlement to a 3rd country, which can take many years or never materialize at all. The Burmese army has planted landmines in Karen state making it unsafe to go back.