Thailand Failing Burmese Refugees: HRW

By Charlie Campbell 13 September 2012

Burmese refugees are made vulnerable to arbitrary and abusive treatment through inconsistent and unpredictable policies by the Thai government, claims Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Ad Hoc and Inadequate: Thailand’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” was released on Thursday and details the plight of Burmese living in border camps as well as those outside who are not officially recognized as refugees.

“Thailand presents Burmese refugees with the unfair choice of stagnating for years in remote refugee camps or living and working outside the camps without protection from arrest and deportation,” said Bill Frelick, HRW Refugee Program director and co-author of the report.

“Thailand should provide all asylum seekers a fair chance to have their refugee claims heard and should allow refugees to move about and work. This would enable refugees to learn skills and reduce opportunities for exploitation, while allowing them to contribute to Thailand’s economy.”

Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and still does not have a refugee law or functioning asylum procedures despite hosting around 140,000 people in nine official refugee camps dotted along its mountainous border with Burma.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the Thai government needs one clear standard and process with steps outlined in law according to international standards.

“There have been different cycles when the situation has been quite tense and there have been significant concerns about push-backs,” he said. “Right after the 2010 election in Burma there was fighting on the border and the Thai government pushing people coming across the border right on back.”

“There isn’t one standard here in Thailand—if you are Shan you are not allowed into a refugee camp or considered a refugee, but if you are Karen you are. If you a Rohingya you cannot be considered for refugee or migrant worker status. Thailand has used a mix of national security justifications and policy objectives to carve out different treatment for different groups.”

Only around 60 percent of those living in camps are officially registered as refugees and so receive minimal legal protection. Meanwhile, many Burmese outside the camps are subject to arrest and immediate deportation unless they go through the expensive and often corrupt process for obtaining migrant worker status.

Sai Khur Hseng, of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that many refugees have lived in Thailand for years and should be given more rights to work officially.

“Thailand should give the Shan refugee status and basic rights,” he said. “Shan people are not allowed to register at refugee camps so Shan people must live as migrant workers around the border or in Shan State. Migrant workers are human beings and Thailand is a democratic country so should give them basic human rights.”

HRW called on the Thai government to work with the United Nations Refugees Agency to establish a fair and transparent refugee screening and registration system for unregistered people in the camps and to allow them to work to help stave off social dysfunction.

Thursday’s 143-page report also looks at the impact of political changes in Burma on the prospects for repatriation. The Norwegian-led “Myanmar Peace Support Initiative” has begun a pilot project with a view to preparing refugees for an eventual return to Burma.

While this scheme has received condemnation from community-based organizations working with the displaced, the Thai government received plaudits from HRW for not pushing the repatriation of refugees too quickly.

“At least with regard to the refugees in the camps, both the Burma government and Thai government are saying the right things—that they’re not in a hurry, that people who go back do so voluntarily, with full respect for the human rights and dignity,” said Robertson. “That’s exactly the standard that we expect them to fulfill.”

Vijavat Isarabhakdi, director-general of the Department of International Organizations of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued a response to the HRW report on Wednesday.

“On long-term solutions, we share the view that the ongoing progress in Myanmar could mean the light at the end of the tunnel for the protracted refugee situation along the Thai-Myanmar border and beyond,” read the statement. “While we are eager to see practical and durable solutions found and have shared our thoughts on future scenarios with various interlocutors … Thailand is in no hurry to rush this matter.

“On birth certificates for the children of displaced persons, they are being issued in all the nine temporary shelters. This is part of our ongoing efforts to reduce the vulnerability of those individuals, including to statelessness.”