Repatriation of Burmese Refugees Discussed by NGOs, Thai Authorities

By Saw Yan Naing 18 June 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Thai authorities and representatives of NGOs including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are holding a three-day meeting in Mae Sot, Thailand, to discuss repatriation plans for more than 130,000 Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border.

The meetings began on Tuesday and are being led by Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), with representatives from four provinces, including Tak Province, where the biggest refugee camp, Mae La, is located.

ISOC official Col. Trasan Saeng Siriran said during the meeting that Thailand had been hosting Burmese refugees for about three decades and was eager for cooperation on the issue of repatriation.

There are nine Burmese refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, where an estimated 130,000 refugees live after fleeing their homes in Burma due to civil war between the Burmese government army and the ethnic armed groups.

Since 2012, the Burmese government and most ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements. Now, amid ongoing negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire accord, Thai authorities are advocating for the eventual return of Burmese refugees to their homeland.

However, a majority of refugees say they do not want to return at the moment due to safety concerns, with fears that peace talks might break down at any time.

Thai authorities invited the UNHCR and NGOs to join the meeting in Mae Sot, but other community-based refugee organizations including the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) were reportedly not included, nor were representatives from the nine camps.

Saw Honest, chairman of the Mae La refugee camp, which is home to more than 40,000 people, said no representatives from his camp had been invited by Thai authorities.

“We knew about the meeting in Mae Sot but we were not asked to join. I asked KRC and they said they also did not know about the meeting,” he told The Irrawaddy.

He added that NGOs, including the UNHCR, often asked camp leaders which conditions will be necessary for refugees to return home.

“Visitors ask us, what do we need to return home? We tell them that we need skills and work in order to make a living when we return. We have not been informed about the date of repatriation,” he said.

The UNHCR and other NGOs invited to attend the three days of meetings could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.