More than 140,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand are facing mounting pressure to leave their camps on the border and return to their homeland, with many refugees saying they are not ready or willing to return.
Refugees in camps in northwest Thailand say they have been given three options: move elsewhere in Thailand, return to Burma or resettle in a third country. They say they have been asked to select a choice on a form delivered by Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a Thai organization under royal patronage that is based in Chiang Mai Province.
Most of the refugees on the Thai-Burma border are ethnic Karen who fled their homes in southeast Burma due to civil wars between the government and ethnic armed groups. Many are economic migrants who crossed the border in search of employment.
Several refugees in the Mae La refugee camp, which houses more than 40,000 people in Tak Province, said the Mae Fah Luang Foundation created the survey earlier this month and asked adults and teenagers in the camp to fill out their responses.
“On the form, refugees have three options,” said Ah Mu, who lives in the camp. “They [refugees] were asked to choose their top priority. For example, if they want to go to a third country, they have to mark that option…and also specify which country they have in mind.”
“They were also asked to mark their second and third priorities, in case if they weren’t matched with their first choice,” he added.
Ah Mu said other questions focused on the refugees’ skills and education levels, as well as where in Burma they would return and what kind of jobs they would pursue there.
The Thai foundation also distributed forms last month to community leaders who administrate another refugee camp known as Umpiem Mai, according to Tun Tun, the general-secretary of that camp.
He said he and other community leaders were consulting with refugees to consider their options as they completed the forms, which he said would be collected by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation in November.
Some refugees said that although they technically had three options, the criteria for traveling to a third country or staying in Thailand was so strict that many people were forced to opt to “voluntarily return” to Burma, even though they did not wish to do so.
Some others, however, said that those who complained were mostly newcomers and economic migrants from urban areas in Burma.
According to regulations from the UN refugee agency’s resettlement program, refugees without registration cards do not meet the criteria for resettlement.
So far, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 81,700 refugees from Burma have been moved to other countries from Thailand since the UN resettlement program started in 2005.
Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, said it was not yet time to promote the repatriation of refugees to Burma. However, she confirmed that UNHCR and partners continued to consult with refugee communities and community-based organizations regarding their options and needs.
“We are also collecting information on the situation in the southeast [of Burma] that we will share with the refugees to enable them to make an informed choice when voluntary repatriation eventually becomes feasible,” she said.
Tan added that a profiling exercise began earlier this month to collect more information about the refugees, including their hometowns, education levels, skills and future plans.
She said all concerned ethnic armed groups and the Burmese government needed to agree on safeguards for returnees, including amnesties and respect for basic rights relating to freedom of movement, as well as the issuance of identity documents upon return. She also called for preparations in areas of potential return to ensure that returnees had a place to live and access to basic facilities, services and work opportunities.
There has been no public or official announcement about refugee repatriation or the expected closure of nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. Some NGO sources, however, say Thai and Burmese authorities intend to shut the camps by 2015.
NGOs including UNHCR, The Border Consortium (TBC) and community-based organizations are conducting repatriation training and workshops for the refugees.
Representatives from refugee support agencies and international NGOs have been meeting with Burmese government officials in Naypyidaw since last year and engaging in efforts to facilitate the eventual repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma.