Refugee Return Centers to Be Opened on Thai-Burma Border

By Saw Yan Naing 1 August 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Service centers providing support for Burmese refugees returning home voluntarily are to be established in all nine Burmese refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border later this month.

Refugees can declare their intention to return home at these “Voluntary Repatriation Centers,” where they can also receive advice, counseling and provisions for their return, and be formally processed in coordination with the Thai authorities.

The establishment of these centers is part of a refugee repatriation process being prepared by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

During the visit of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand in June, an agreement on cooperation between the Thai and Burmese governments was reached to facilitate the return of Burmese refugees. During her visit, Suu Kyi publicly welcomed the refugees back and said they were Burma’s responsibility. Later in June, the Burmese government announced it would repatriate 196 refugees from the border camps as an initial step.

Iain Hall, UNHCR senior field coordinator in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, told The Irrawaddy that the new centers were “designed and will be constructed by the IOM in all camps to provide a voluntary return support service to any refugees that are interested. The [centers] will be the central location where refugees can get information.”

Hall said they would also be the locations for “voluntary repatriation processing by the UNHCR, the IOM and the Royal Thai Government.”

There are about 120,000 registered Burmese refugees living in nine camps on the Thai-Burma border. Many of them feel it is still unsafe to return home, since most escaped from conflict-wracked areas of Burma’s Karen State, where the Burma Army still occupies many villages, despite a ceasefire reached between the previous government and the largest Karen ethnic armed organization, the Karen National Union (KNU), in 2012, and the KNU’s signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year.

Hall said that provisions for returnees would be made available at the new centers, including cash for transport, food via the World Food Programme, and reintegration grants via the IOM through its agreement with the UNHCR.

Under the plan, the UNHCR will conduct individual protection counseling for any refugee who approaches the centers and expresses their desire to return home. Handicap International, a nongovernmental organization, will provide Risk Awareness sessions, including on the subject of landmines.

“While the UNHCR is not promoting or encouraging refugees’ return, it is getting ready to facilitate and support any refugees that have made a voluntary decision to return, as is their right,” said Hall.

Observers and sources on the Thai-Burma border said the pilot project for voluntary refugee return would begin in August in Nu Po camp in Thailand’s Tak Province.

One observer familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media, said, “I believe 55 persons have [so far] approached the UNHCR,” asking them to help facilitate their return.

He said that the announcement concerning the opening of “Voluntary Repatriation Centers” was made during a two-day stakeholders’ meeting in Mae La camp in Tak Province last week, attended by NGOs, community-based organizations and refugee camp committee members.

According to several credible sources, groups representing refugees such as the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) and the Karenni Refugee Committee (KnRC), among others, had not received prior notice about this development. The UNHCR claimed to have had many discussions with the Thai government on the matter, and cited the Burmese government’s public commitment to accept and prepare for the return of refugees.