Rights Groups Concerned at Proposed Repatriation of Refugees

 | Thu 17 Jul 2014 23:44 ICT

CityNews – Human rights groups have urged caution following reports that 130,000 refugees will soon be sent back to Burma.
The Mae La refugee camp, near Mae Sot in Tak province.

Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced in his weekly speech last Friday that Thai and Burmese authorities would work together to repatriate the 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.   A Thai military source quoted by the Bangkok Post said the refugees have been sorted into three groups  – those who want to go back, those who want to stay and those who want to be resettled in a third country. The process would take around a year, he said.   But a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand said there were a number of inaccuracies in local media reports.   “The Royal Thai Government has consistently reassured us that any refugee returns to Myanmar must be voluntary and conducted in safety and dignity,” Vivian Tan told CityNews. “UNHCR is not aware of any changes in this government policy, or of a government timeframe to repatriate refugees. We are working closely with the authorities on these issues.”   The first camps opened in 1984 when Karen refugees began fleeing the fighting in eastern Burma, also known as Myanmar, 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, believes the conditions “are not yet conducive for a voluntary return in safety and nor a sustainable reintegration with dignity,” according to spokesman Duncan McArthur.   The UNHCR agrees. “In light of positive developments in Myanmar in the past two years, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have heightened levels of preparedness,” said Tan. “However, a number of conditions in south-eastern Myanmar where the refugees come from are not yet fully conducive to organised returns. This includes the absence of a permanent ceasefire, the presence of minefields and lack of critical infrastructure in some areas, among other conditions.”   Tan said the UNHCR has not yet discussed what assistance would be provided to refugees who choose to return, and there has been no agreement on what would happen to those who are unable or unwilling to repatriate or resettle in a third country.   Human Rights Watch has also urged caution, and called on the Thai and Burmese authorities to involve the refugees in any decisions on their future.   “Thailand needs to uphold the principle that any return of refugees to Burma must be completely voluntary and without coercion of any kind. It’s imperative that the refugees have the opportunity to play a full part in any decision-making process, in line with their past calls that there be no decision about us without us,” said spokesman Phil Robertson, who called on the junta to release the full text of any agreement on the proposed repatriation.   “Human Rights Watch’s current assessment is that it is not safe for refugees from the camps to go back to Burma at this time because of landmines, Burmese military presence in ethnic areas, no peace agreements, and a lack of basic services and support for returnees. The Thai military junta must recognise that setting arbitrary deadlines for return of those in the camps will only serve to increase rumours and panic among the refugees, and undermine efforts to ensure that any returns of refugees fully comply with international human rights standards.”