MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand — Thai soldiers launched a headcount of refugees here, as authorities restricted movement in and out of this sprawling camp near the Burmese border, raising fears among refugees that they would soon be forcefully repatriated to Burma.
The headcount early Monday morning at Mae La—home to 43,000 and the country’s largest refugee camp—comes a week after the junta announced it would send home an estimated 120,000 people living in nine refugee camps straddling the Thai-Burma border.
“The National Council for Peace and Order [the ruling military body] is trying to control and check the number of migrant workers in Thailand… some of [the refugees] sneak out to work in the agricultural sector,” Colonel Terdsak Ngamsanong, commander of the 4th infantry regiment, said, noting that government and non-governmental agencies have varying figures. He said the headcount would be completed by July, but did not say when refugees would be sent back.
“So now we will try to count the number of people who have been affected by the conflict and separate them from the migrant workers. There will also be a benefit in the long-term because we will be able to use this data for repatriation.”
Local authorities said they would enforce Thai government rules forbidding refugees from leaving the camp. Many go out to work in nearby villages, risking arrest and extortion.
“If the refugees leave the camp area, they will be considered illegal migrants. We will process them according to the law by sending them to the police and they will be pushed back,” said Preeda Foongtrakulchai, permanent secretary of Tha Song Yang district, where Mae La is located.
‘We Don’t Want to Go Back’
Many of the Burmese refugees fled persecution and ethnic wars, as well as poverty, and have lived in the camps for up to nearly three decades with no legal means of earning an income.
Thailand’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday noting that “a possible return of these displaced persons has always been raised,” and the most recent discussion “was in general terms with no specific timeframe.”
However, as the Thai military, army rangers and refugee volunteers organized hundreds of families for the headcount on Monday, the refugees were uneasy.
Under a steady rain, elderly couples with walking sticks and young families with babies wrapped in colorful fabrics sat on wet tarpaulin sheets, waiting for their house numbers to be called.
“We heard that they may be sending us back, but we don’t want to go back,” said a 61-year-old ethnic Karen man from eastern Burma, who gave his name as Saw.
“We have no family there, no jobs or land. There’s nothing left. What are we to do?” said the man, who has been living in this camp for almost 20 years and fled Burma because he had been a forced laborer for the Burmese military too many times.
Thailand stopped registering new refugees in 2007, and the United States—which has taken in more than 70,000 Burmese refugees from Thailand—ended its group resettlement program.
Now, as Burma garners praise for democratic reforms, and financial support to the camps dwindles, there has been more talk of repatriation—stirring fear among refugees who say they will be persecuted if returned to Burma.
They worry the headcount is part of a plan to close the camps.
As families are called forward, their household registration papers are used for roll call to see if each family member is present. They then line up to have their pictures taken, each person holding a number, under a banner that says, “The survey of refugees from war in the Mae La temporary shelter, Zone A, 21 July 2014.”
The refugees say aid agencies have similar headcounts, but none include taking pictures, fueling concern.
“Quite a few people—if I have to guess, about 500 people—lost hope and left over the weekend immediately after the military made their announcement,” said a refugee in Umpiem Mai camp, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions. “We don’t know what to do. People are worried because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”