RANGOON — A small percentage of Burmese refugees living in camps on the Thai border returned to their homeland in 2013, a consortium of NGOs says.
Of 128,200 refugees living in nine camps in Thailand in December 2012, only 3.4 percent returned to Burma last year, compared with 6 percent who resettled to third countries, according to new population data published by The Border Consortium (TBC), which assists Burmese people who have been displaced and are either living in Burma or as refugees in Thailand.
“These figures show us that refugees are not leaving the camps and returning to Myanmar [Burma] en masse,” TBC executive director Sally Thompson, said in a statement Monday. “It appears that the majority of those returning are going back on a ‘look and see’ basis.”
Last year 4,389 refugees in the camps returned to Burma. Of these departures, a majority included just one or two people from a household, with other family members staying behind in the camps, TBC said.
By comparison, at least 7,649 people moved to third countries under the resettlement program of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), it said, adding that the figure could be higher as year-end data from the International Organization for Migration was still pending. According to UNHCR, over 7,000 of those people were resettled to the United States, while others went to Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Canada.
Last month a group resettlement program to the United States came to a close. Since 2005 the program has helped over 73,000 Burmese refugees move from the Thai camps to the United States.
As Burma’s quasi-civilian government continues to roll out political and economic reforms, and as it negotiates ceasefire deals with ethnic armed groups, refugees in camps on the Thai border have faced pressure to move home. Many have said they are not ready to return, fearing the conditions in their villages are not yet safe.
A majority of refugees in the camps are originally from Karen State in southeast Burma. Many fled from fighting between government troops and Karen armed groups. Clashes have died down with the signing of ceasefires, but the state remains militarized in some areas and conflict zones have yet to be demined.
When they return home, refugees face a wide range of challenges depending on how long they have been away, according to TBC spokesman Mike Bruce.
“In general, the main issues are land confiscation, security and justice concerns, and livelihood opportunities,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We don’t know if those who are returning have family supports or economic opportunities waiting for them, but we do know that many of the refugees’ townships of origin continue to suffer from acute impoverishment, lack of infrastructure and lack of security.”
Naw Heh Lay, a 25-year-old Karen woman living in Mae La Oon camp in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, said her father has visited their abandoned village in Papun District, northern Karen State, since early 2012.
“My father went to our village to observe the situation on the ground,” she told The Irrawaddy. “He went back to rebuild our home, garden and paddy field, just to prepare in case we move back one day.”
Other refugees in Mae La Oon and Mae Ra Ma Luang camps have returned to mark the territory of their old land, to ensure they can claim their property when they move back with their entire families.
“Most of those who have gone back to abandoned villages are men because they can move quickly to escape if they are attacked by the Burmese army. There are still Burmese army troops positioned in the areas,” said Naw Paw Eh, a housewife in Mae La Oon camp whose husband has returned to Burma several times.
Those who make the trip back say land prices in their villages are rising. The ceasefires have allowed more development projects to begin in Karen State, and many local residents have rushed to buy property amid hopes of a relative economic boom.
NGO sources say three camps are being built in Myawaddy District, southern Karen State, to house repatriated Burmese refugees from two camps in Thailand’s Tak Province, most likely Nu Po and Umpieng camps.
There has been no public or official announcement to signal the beginning of refugee repatriation or the expected closure of camps on the Thai-Burma border.
“TBC agrees with UNHCR, the Government of the Union of Myanmar, the Royal Thai Government, and many international partners that conditions do not yet exist for the organised return of refugees,” the consortium said in the statement.
The overall population of refugees in the nine camps in Thailand decreased 7.1 percent last year, from 128,200 people at the end of 2012 to 119,156 people at the end of 2013, TBC said. This figure accounts for people who resettled in third countries and those who moved back to Burma, as well as those who passed away or left the camps to seek jobs as migrant workers.
“It is important to note that while there was a net population decrease, new refugees are continuing to arrive in the camps; there were 3,300 new asylum seekers arriving in 2013,” Thompson said in the statement.
“Changes in population do not mean that there is any less need for protection, food, shelter, and essential services such as education and health care in the camps. There are still 120,000 people living in extremely vulnerable conditions in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, and they continue to need protection and humanitarian assistance.”
The population data was collected through an annual population census by TBC that involved interviews with all registered and unregistered refugees in the camps. A database was updated monthly with population increases and permanent departures.
Since President Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011, TBC and others working with Burmese refugees in Thailand have seen decreased funding, as international donors have turned their attention to projects inside Burma.
Last year TBC announced that due to funding constraints it would need to reduce rice rations for some people living in the camps. The humanitarian organization, which has provided food to the camps for more than two decades, said it would need to decrease the amount of rice provided to adults from households that were categorized as self-reliant, although rations would remain unchanged for those from more vulnerable households.
TBC said at the time that ration changes were not intended to promote an early return to Burma.