Thailand has begun the process of repatriating Burmese refugees who have been living on its soil for more than two decades. With the help of the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as the International Organization for Migration, an initial group of 68 refugees were returned to their homes in Karen State and Tenasserim Division on Tuesday, on an ostensibly voluntary basis.
Irrawaddy senior reporter Saw Yan Naing interviewed Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s spokesperson in Asia, about the returnees—including their hopes and their fears.
Since this is the first official repatriation, what are your thoughts?
This is an important first step that we hope can pave the way for further returns, eventually ending one of Asia’s longest-running refugee situations. It was the refugees who first approached the UNHCR to seek support to return, prompting both governments [Thai and Burmese] to organize this movement. The process will continue to be driven by the wishes of the refugees and the prevailing environment to support safe and dignified voluntary return.
Are the refugees content with the process?
Understandably, they have mixed feelings after spending so many years away. Most say they are happy and excited to go back to the country where they were born. Some are naturally worried about the unknown, though they feel reassured that they have family waiting to receive them in Myanmar.
Why do these refugees want to return home?
I’ve spoken to a number of the refugees returning home from Nu Po camp [near the Thai-Burmese border]. Some say they are returning because they feel confident in the reforms in Myanmar. Others say they don’t want to be refugees forever, and think they will have a better future back home.
Where will the returnees be placed in Burma?
They are voluntarily returning to places including Yangon, Bago, Kayin and Tanintharyi [divisions and states].
Who will be providing them with food, shelter and security?
As with any refugee return operation, the country of origin—in this case Myanmar—must assume full responsibility for protecting the rights of returning citizens and helping them rebuild their lives. We hope that the peace process will gain strength and we remind all parties of their responsibility to ensure that refugees can return home in safety and dignity.
Where we have access, the UNHCR will also provide support in the areas of return, supporting local communities in coordination with the government, non-state actors, and humanitarian and development partners.
For food, the UN World Food Programme will provide three months of food assistance in cash value, in addition to return and reintegration assistance from the Myanmar government, the UNHCR and others.