Commentary: Still Too Early For Burmese Refugee Return

By Saw Yan Naing 4 August 2016

Service centers for Burmese refugees who wish to return home will soon be opened in the camps along the Thai-Burma border—a sudden development that has alarmed refugees and camp leaders.

Set up with the involvement of agencies including the International Organization of Migration, the Voluntary Repatriation Centers will provide counseling, advice and provisions to enable voluntary returns. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will conduct official processing in coordination with the Thai authorities.

However, refugee community leaders and local organizations have told The Irrawaddy that a majority of the 120,000 registered refugees in the nine camps along the border do not wish to return to Burma.

The conflict-wracked areas of rural Karen State in eastern Burma that many of the refugees fled from are still considered unsafe, due to continued militarization.

There is a perception among sections of the international community that, after 30 years on Thai soil—and after the installment of a democratically elected government and the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that included the Karen National Union (KNU)—it is time for many of the refugees to return home.

In the last few years there has been a decline in assistance from international donors to the border refugee communities, which has coincided with an increase in donor funds dispersed inside Burma, including through government channels.

The decline in assistance has also been attributed to unprecedented global pressures on refugee funds and resources caused by the current refugee crisis in the Middle East.

The UNHCR has given assurances that all returns would be voluntary and that refugees retain the right to decide. However, many refugees consider the choice as one of “do or die,” being unsure of their chances of survival in Thailand under dwindling donor assistance. Some have interpreted cuts in this assistance as a form of pressure.

Since Thailand does not legally permit refugees to work, those in search of extra income—outside of running small-scale businesses within the camps—would have to join the ranks of “illegal” Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, whom labor rights organizations have estimated to number as high as 2 million (against 1.7 million Burmese migrants working legally). Those with family members or friends working in third countries may be able to live on remittances.

Saw Honest, chairman of Mae La camp, the largest Burmese border camp hosting around 40,000 refugees, said that, when the Mae Fah Luang Foundation—a Thai nongovernmental organization—conducted a survey in 2014, “only 2 or 3 percent” of the [refugee] population showed an interest in going home.

“Most of them wanted to resettle in third countries. The second largest proportion wanted to remain in Thailand,” said Saw Honest.

“We know that we are coming under pressure, anyhow,” said Saw Honest.

More official and up-to-date statistics on refugees’ willingness to return home are not currently available, but refugee community leaders claim that the majority of refugees consider it “still too early” to return home.

Refugees have gone individually to check on their abandoned villages and farmlands, they said, but the continued presence of Burma Army units there have precluded the desire of most to return permanently.

“We know that the KNU has made a ceasefire with the Burmese government and they have developed a greater understanding of one another. But there are still threats to civilian safety because the Burma Army and [non-state] armed groups are deployed close to villages, and landmines have not yet been removed. Also, land ownership issues should be addressed,” said Saw Honest, referencing a legacy of military land grabs.

A large proportion of the refugees who fled conflict have lost whatever land registration documents they might have had, after their villages were burned down or ransacked and they went on the run, moving from place to place before reaching Thailand.

After visiting some of the villages that these refugees had fled from in Karen and Mon states in April this year, this Irrawaddy reporter found that several of the “model villages” built for returnees were incomplete and seemingly abandoned.

Some that have made return visits to their villages in Thaton and Bilin townships of Mon State—from which 3,000 refugees fled armed conflict to the border camps in Thailand—found that their old farmland had been confiscated.

Across Papun and Hpa-an districts of Karen State, which saw large outflows of refugees due to conflict, militarization remains significant, with not only the Burma Army present across rural areas but also ethnic Karen armed groups including a Border Guard Force, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and brigades of the KNU.

These groups have also seized farmland and exploited land rich in gold and tin for business opportunities—including land once held by the current refugees.

Despite apparent progress in the peace process, with the “21st Century Panglong” Union Peace Conference scheduled for later this month, there have been scant moves by the Burma Army to withdraw their troops from rural civilian areas. Furthermore, the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, is continuing to recruit and train new soldiers, and is remaining on the alert.

Naw Blooming Night Zar, a spokesperson for Karen Refugee Committee, told The Irrawaddy that she had raised with the UNHCR her concern that the sudden introduction of Voluntary Repatriation Centers might frighten refugees.

“We do not see so many refugees interested in returning. Some individuals have gone home only to observe the situation. There are no group returns. We have told [the UNHCR] that it is not yet time,” said Blooming Night Zar.

The UNHCR, meanwhile, said that it would distribute pamphlets to inform refugees about the voluntarily return process, and would explain to community leaders about the current preparations.

Iain Hall, a UNHCR senior field coordinator, insisted that they were not “promoting or encouraging refugees’ return,” but were making the necessary preparations to “support any refugees that have made a voluntary decision to return, as is their right.”

Such preparations, being undertaken in earnest, appear to reflect the new priorities of donors and governments. But instead of expediting their altered policies, the UNHCR should be exercising its mandate to speak of behalf of refugees and their concerns.

Without fully understanding or addressing the challenges on the ground—such as continued militarization in the areas of Burma where these refugees may return to—any decisions made by the Thai and Burmese government, donors, international agencies and non-state armed groups to accelerate repatriation would be premature.

If the wrong choices were made, it is not they, but the refugees, who would suffer the consequences.