CityNews – The Karen National Union (KNU) has announced that it would block any efforts to forcibly repatriate refugees from camps on the Thai-Burma border unless their safety and dignity was assured.
The Mae La camp near Mae Sot. Photo: Mark Fenn.
Padoh Saw Thaw Thi Bweh, a senior leader of the KNU, said it would not be appropriate to repatriate the refugees unless there was political stability and a permanent ceasefire in Burma.
“If the Thai junta forces the refugees to return home or [an]other organisation would like to forcibly repatriate the refugees, we, the KNU, would like to prevent those plans,” he told Karen News last week. “The refugees should not be forcibly repatriated unless they are repatriated with dignity … with their fundamental rights to security, shelter, and food.”
Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced last month that Thai and Burmese authorities would work together to repatriate around 130,000 refugees in nine camps along the border. Most are from the Karen ethnic group, which has been fighting for independence or greater autonomy for decades.
The first camps opened in 1984 when Karen refugees began fleeing the fighting in eastern Burma in large numbers. Now more than half the population of the camps is aged under 19. Many young people know nothing other than life in the camps, where they have at least had access to basic healthcare and education provided by international NGOs.
Karen state lacks even basic infrastructure, and returning refugees can look forward to little more than a life of subsistence farming there. The Burmese army still maintains a strong presence in the area, prompting fear and suspicion among those who fled the fighting. Human rights groups have documented widespread cases of abuses by the military in Karen state, including forced labour, rape, and the burning of crops and villages.
The Border Consortium, a group of ten international NGOs working in the field, says international standards for the return of refugees are based around three conditions – voluntary decisions, safety and respect for human dignity.
“It’s generally recognised that conditions in Southeast Burma are not yet ready for a large-scale return process, and as a result no plans or timeframes have been developed,” said spokesman Duncan McArthur.
“Addressing protection and security concerns are the fundamental challenges for solving the causes of displacement. Refugees are primarily looking for a limited withdrawal of Tatmadaw [Burmese army] troops from areas of potential resettlement. The negotiation of stability arrangements between armed groups to address these security issues will be critical to building confidence in the prospects for return. It doesn’t matter how well the logistics of return transport are organised, refugees will keep coming back to Thailand unless these causes of displacement are addressed.”
Local communities need to plan how to manage the expected influx of refugees to avoid tensions over access to natural resources, he added.
Human Rights Watch has called for closer Thai consultation with the camp committees elected by the refugees. Spokesman Phil Robertson told CityNews that many refugees are nervous as they keep hearing rumours about the junta’s intentions, and called for their representatives to be involved at every step of the decision-making process.
“The key issues for refugees to return to Burma are their personal security, followed by the need for access to land and livelihoods,” he said. “Right now, they don’t have the guarantees they need in any of these areas to contemplate returning because the Tatmadaw is still operating in areas to which refugees might return – and that army has not changed one iota from its predatory, civilian-targeting ways that caused people to flee in the first place. Add to that the presence of landmines, as well as land grabbing in ethnic areas by political and military elites, and it’s clear that a lot has to change in Burma before refugees will seriously contemplate returning.
“One hopes that the Thai military junta realises that any efforts to push forward with a premature, involuntary repatriation would rebound badly on Thailand, and earn it the ire of the international community. We don’t know what the KNU would do in such a situation but obviously they feel that they would have to protect their people from harm – let’s just hope that it doesn’t come to that.”