CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Stakeholders including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and community-based organizations (CBOs) discussed preparations for refugee repatriation in the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burma border.
Concerned parties deliberated how best to provide assistance and ensure the safety of refugees who wanted to return to Burma.
Iain Hall, UNHCR senior field coordinator, told The Irrawaddy that the meeting was one of a series in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided updates on health, education, livelihood, food and nutrition activities held to prepare refugees for their return.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) and the Karenni Refugee Committee (KnRC) outlined their current operational guidelines for voluntary repatriation. The UNHCR also briefed groups about its meetings, workshops and consultations with the Burmese and Thai governments, NGOs and CBOs.
Iain Hall said that the UNHCR was not promoting return but was prepared to support and facilitate any individual return once it was assured of its voluntary nature, safety and dignity.
“We discussed the type of support we could provide—like cash and transportation. There is no start date to any return plan or movement. That is decided by individual refugees,” Hall told The Irrawaddy.
NGOs also reiterated a recent statement made in Thailand by Burma’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in which she said the government would welcome refugees who chose to return.
“We are not knocking on doors and asking people to go home. But refugees can come to the UNHCR and and can assist them. We have been approached by refugees in several camps expressing their desire to return,” said Hall.
He added that both governments want the voluntary returns to be sustainable and have strongly advocated compliance with international standards.
There are over 120,000 registered Burmese refugees living in nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. The majority are ethnic Karen who fled during conflicts between the Burma Army and ethnic armed organizations.
The Thai government raised the issue of repatriation under the previous administration, after ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), signed a ceasefire agreement in 2012. Preparations have been ongoing since then.
However, many refugees still do not feel safe returning to their homes. The Burma Army still occupies territory near Karen villages and there is no concrete plan for demining areas littered with landmines placed by both sides in the conflict.