Thousands of refugees have been lining up to be counted at Mae La, the largest refugee camp in Thailand, since Monday. Authorities said the process is set to finish by the end of July.
They said the census is the first of its kind since the camp which houses over 43,000 refugees was established 30 years ago.
“We conducted the census to get the exact number of those who fled the conflict [in Burma],” said infantry commander Terdsak Ngamsanong.
But anyone who came here to work illegally will lose their refugee status,” he said.
An estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees live in 10 camps along the Thai-Burmese border, according to The Border Consortium, which coordinates NGO activity in the camps.
Many fled persecution and ethnic wars as well as poverty and have lived in the camps with no legal means of making an income.
“We’ve announced in both Burmese and Karen languages that we are processing them strictly. If the refugees leave the camp area, they will be considered illegal migrants. We’ll process them according to law. We’ll send them to the police and they will be pushed back,” said Preeda Foongtrakulchai, permanent secretary of Tha Song Yang District.
Refugees lined up to get their photos taken, with numbers marking the hierarchy in the family.
Many of them feared they will be repatriated.
“There are lots of different rumours going around. What they are worried about is that once they finish the head count they will be sent back,” said Saw A Kaing, the village chief at one of the refugee zones.
There have been anonymous comments in the media recently that Thailand’s military government plans to repatriate the refugees, a move rights groups say would create chaos at a tense time for both nations.
However, DVB has leaned that such a move is unlikely to be contemplated within the next year as too many security factors remain.