No Quick Return for Border Refugees Despite High Hopes for NLD Era

By Saw Yan Naing 4 May 2016

RANGOON — The repatriation of some 120,000 refugees along the Thai-Burma border was discussed during a meeting of stakeholders last week, but an official from the United Nations’ refugee agency insists there remains no firm timetable on a large-scale return of the displaced despite talks on the matter between Burma’s new government and its Thai counterpart.

“The main focus of the meeting was on refugee registration and resettlement [to third-party countries], which is winding down after 11 years. The subject of voluntary return was not on the agenda but was prompted by a question,” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.

Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) spokesperson Naw Blooming Night Zar confirmed that the April 27 meeting, which included officials from both governments, NGOs and representatives of the UNHCR and from refugee camps, did not focus on repatriation of those living in nine camps on the border.

“We concentrated on how to handle those who are not yet registered with the United Nations and the Thai government,” she told The Irrawaddy. “We want to ensure that the Thai policy on refugee repatriation has not changed. There is no pressure on the refugees to return home. They will be required to return home only when there is genuine peace.”

She added that the Thai government acknowledged that it was not the right time for them to return to Burma, despite an abatement of conflict in eastern Burma.

“Even internally displaced people [IDPs] in Karen State can’t go home, so it will be difficult for those living in Thailand to return,” she said.

At the meeting, Thai official and Tak province Deputy Governor Suttha Saivanid said the Thai government had been in contact with Burma’s newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government to arrange for repatriation, according to Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

DVB reported that Suttha said Thai officials expected repatriation of the refugees would take place “within two to three years’ time.”

While the new NLD government has emphasized Burma’s peace process and national reconciliation as core priorities, prospects for a lasting peace will to a large degree be determined by the Burma Army, which remains outside of civilian control.

Karen State, where most of the border refugees fled from, has seen relatively little conflict in recent years, but elsewhere in Burma renewed fighting has cast doubt on the military’s stated commitment to peace.

Tan said the UNHCR continues to talk with the governments of Thailand and Burma about options for the eventual, voluntary return of refugees.

“Our position remains unchanged: Any refugee return must be voluntary. It must be based on an individual, informed decision, and must take place in safety and dignity,” said Tan.

She said the UNHCR would only facilitate the voluntary return of refugees who approach the agency for support.

“We are not proactively promoting or encouraging returns, but will try our best to support those who have decided that they wish to return shortly. We are exploring how best to facilitate their return,” said Tan.

Details of that support are still being discussed on both sides of the border between governments, the United Nations, NGOs, ethnic groups and community-based organizations, she added.

The KRC spokeswoman said NGOs had already begun preparing for repatriation back in 2012.

“The return won’t happen overnight,” said Naw Blooming Night Zar. “We provided vocational training and skills for them to apply when they return home, spent three years preparing them in order to smooth the process and trained them to stand on their own feet,” she added.

She emphasized that before repatriation occurs, there should a stable nationwide ceasefire agreement, a guarantee for safety, household support and proper housing.

She added that success would also depend on contributions from the West, but that a sluggish global economy and the varying interests of foreign donors had contributed to a decline of humanitarian support for the refugees.

“It depends on the interests of the donors. Some believe that Burma is peaceful, so they have [moved their focus] inside the country. But there are others who will continue supporting the refugees until they can return home,” she said.