CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The UN refugee agency and Thailand’s Ministry of Interior will conduct a verification exercise on the Burmese refugee population along the Thai border, with the data intended to help find “durable solutions” and better coordinate future humanitarian assistance.
The program will be carried out in all nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, where some 130,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, have been living for decades after fleeing their homes amid Burma’s long-running civil war.
Saw Honest, chairman of the largest refugee camp at Mae La, told The Irrawaddy that his camp’s program would likely begin in February.
“They will tally the refugee population,” said Saw Honest, whose camp hosts more than 40,000 refugees in western Thailand’s Tak province. “Then, 11-year-olds and older will be issued a card that contains family bio data.”
Retinal scans, fingerprints and photographs of the refugees will reportedly be recorded in the verification process, he said.
Vivian Tan, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Asia, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the aim of the exercise was to physically verify and update existing records of Burmese refugees living in the camps to allow for better humanitarian aid planning.
“Upon verification, refugees will receive a card with their information contained on a data chip. This card, which is unique and not issued to other groups in Thailand, will be linked to durable solutions and future assistance,” said Tan, adding that the card would not be a substitute for a state-issued identity document and would not entitle card holders to the right to work or travel in Thailand.
The one-time exercise is mandatory for all refugee camp residents and those who are absent will be struck from the list of registered camp residents. The verification process, which will run from late January through April, will also document non-registered refugees, but will not serve as a way for these individuals to register with the UNHCR. Registering with the UN agency comes with benefits such as eligibility for third-country resettlement.
Sources close to nongovernmental organizations on the border said the Thai government was considering issuing “hill-tribe” ID cards to the refugees so that they could travel outside the camps and work legally in Thai industries to earn a living.
Under Thai law, the 130,000 refugees on the border are prohibited from traveling outside the camps and cannot legally take jobs in Thailand.
Last year, the Thai military conducted a headcount of the refugee population on the border, raising concerns that plans were afoot for an imminent repatriation of the refugees. The UNHCR has consistently maintained that the time for refugees’ return is not yet appropriate, though discussions on the matter have been taking place in light of the relative peace that has accompanied the signing of more than a dozen ceasefires between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups over the last three years.
Since the Thai military took power in a May 22 coup, the head of the regime, a former general and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, has pushed for the refugees’ repatriation. He has also met with the head of the Burma Army, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, in Bangkok to discuss the issue.
Most refugees are reluctant to return home at present, feeling the potential for armed conflict lingers in Burma’s ethnic border regions, a survey of refugees in mid-2013 found.