Karen Refugee Committee Criticizes Refugee Repatriation Process

By Saw Yan Naing 15 November 2016

The Karen Refugee Committee (KRC), a community-based organization that has been facilitating the needs of Burmese refugees in Thailand, has said that they feel they were neglected in decision-making processes and were not invited to cooperate in recent refugee repatriation efforts.

On October 25, the Thai government and the UN refugee agency, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), repatriated a reported 71 Burmese refugees to Karen State, Mon State, and Tenassarim and Rangoon divisions. Some refugees have since reported that they are unhappy with the circumstances of the return—they report having been asked to buy into low-income housing, a cost for which they were not prepared.

Sources close to the refugees have also reported that some of unhappy returnees are trying to come back to the refugee camps in Thailand. Two families have reportedly returned to Nu Po camp on Thai-Burma border, said the sources.

Naw Blooming Night Zar, a spokesperson for the KRC, told The Irrawaddy that her organization was not invited by the UNHCR to assist in the recent refugee repatriation.

“We heard from the news that they were asked to rent or buy houses. They have to pay a monthly installment. Refugees are not doing business—they went back with empty hands. So how can they afford houses?” Naw Blooming Night Zar said.

She explained that concerned organizations such as the UNHCR built centers dedicated to voluntary repatriation in all refugee camps and dealt directly with camp residents through consultations, where they were provided with information on safety and various forms of assistance.

“We were neither informed nor contacted. They [the Thai authorities and UNHCR] didn’t discuss it with us. They carried out [the repatriation] by themselves. They went to the camp [Nu Po] and talked to refugees. We don’t know how and what information they gave to the refugees. We had nothing to do with that,” she said.

Naw Blooming Night Zar agreed there should be preparation for voluntary repatriation, but she lamented what she described as a lack of cooperation between international and local organizations.

“It is not right that they [UNHCR and Thai authorities] didn’t discuss the refugee issues with us. We should talk, negotiate and find a solution together. We feel like they didn’t recognize our role and leadership,” said Naw Blooming Night Zar.

In October, the UNHCR described the repatriation of what was first estimated to be 96 refugees to Burma as a “milestone.” The agency reported that the returnees had made their own decision to return home after family members in Burma provided information that it was safe to do so.

When asked, Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s spokesperson in Asia, told The Irrawaddy that the UNHCR had also heard media reports on the dissatisfaction of refugees who had returned to Rangoon, but would not comment on it.

She said that the UNHCR staff have visited the returnees on several occasions in order to learn of their living conditions. She added that local authorities “are working on ways to address the challenges of initial reintegration support.”

Tan denied said that two families had come back to Thailand.

“The UNHCR and our partners are in touch with them and assessing the progress of reintegration on a regular basis. It is not true that two families have gone back to Thailand. I understand that two students are back in Nu Po under a prior agreement for them to complete their schooling before rejoining their families back in Myanmar,” she told The Irrawaddy.

The UNHCR said that October’s move had marked the first official group repatriation from among the more than 103,000 Burmese refugees living in Thailand for over 20 years. Most of the refugees, who fled their homes to escape civil war, are from ethnic Karen communities persecuted by the Burma Army.

However, Naw Blooming Night Zar of the KRC argued that the recent repatriation was not the first, and cited a past incident when a group of refugees—mostly students—from Mae La Ma Luang camp were sent back to Burma.

Rangoon-based daily newspaper the Myanmar Times reported earlier this month that four families who had returned to Rangoon were asked to buy units in a low-cost apartment complex on the outskirts of the commercial capital. The report, however, said that temporary housing had been arranged for 17 refugees in Rangoon.

One of the returnees, Daw Khin San Yi told the Myanmar Times that she felt she had made a mistake by returning to Burma.

It has also been reported that returnees have warned refugees remaining in the camps in Thailand not to volunteer for repatriation to Burma in the near future.