Refugee Repatriation Talks Held in Karen State Capital

By The Irrawaddy 12 June 2013

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—The UN refugee agency has met with high-ranking Burmese officials in the Karen State capital to discuss plans of repatriating more than 140,000 Burmese refugees over the border in Thailand.

The discussions in Pa-an focused on the Burmese government’s desire to repatriate the refugees and its plan to provide shelters for them in Mon State and Karen State, Thai news agency Nation Channel reported on Monday.

Most of the Burmese refugees in Thailand are ethnic Karen people who fled their homes in southeast Burma in the early 1980s amid fighting between Karen rebels and the government’s army. They have been living in nine refugee camps on the Thai border since then.

Refugees from three of the nine camps will be targeted for repatriation first, according to the report, which said the three camps were in Tak Province. It added that Burma planned to amend education laws to allow Burmese refugees who studied in Thailand to return with an approved equivalent high school certificate.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Vivian Tan, the spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Asia, said Burmese and Thai authorities were trying to ensure refugees were informed about the situation in Burma so they could make independent, informed decisions about whether to return.

The UNHCR has not promoted the repatriation program, she added.

Tan said UNHCR officials told Burmese authorities that if the situation in Burma became safe enough for repatriation, authorities would need to agree on a basic principle of “voluntary return.”

“There will be no pressure to close down the camp for now,” she said. “On the Myanmar side, I think it is a good sign that the authorities say they welcome the refugees to return home. We stress that any return that happens must be voluntarily.”

Tan said Burmese authorities pledged to give returning refugees the right to select where in Burma they would live.

Although there has been no official public announcement of repatriation efforts, some temporary shelters have been built for returning refugees in Karen State’s Hlaing Bwe Township, according to local residents.

In a meeting with the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) in Pa-an on April 26, Karen State’s chief minister, Zaw Min, said he wanted some refugees—about 30 households—to return to the temporary shelters in Karen State.

Refugees in Thailand say they have seen other signs of impending repatriation. At Mae La camp in Tak Province, the biggest camp on the Thai border, refugees say Mae Fah Luang Foundation, a Thai organization, has distributed forms that require refugees to select from three options: move elsewhere in Thailand, return to Burma, or resettle in a third country. Mae Fah Luang Foundation, based in Chiang Mai Province, is under the royal Thai patronage.