Friday is World Refugee Day, and on the Thai-Burmese border some 120,000 people are living in refugee camps, some for as long as three decades.
During that time, the Thai government has called numerous times for them to return to Burma, but conditions have never been right due to civil conflict.
However, during a three-day meeting held this week in Mae Sot, a Thai official
“We are preparing to send the refugees back to Burma,” said the deputy director general of Thailand’s Department of the Interior, noting that many of those in the camps had been sheltering on Thai soil since 1984.
The message came at a meeting in the Thai border town between the Thai army’s Internal Security Operations Command, regional commanders of four border provinces, interior officials, and NGOs which provide assistance to the refugees, including UNHCR.
“The objective of this meeting was to discuss repatriation of the refugees who have fled conflict [in Burma],” said the Department of the Interior official. “As everyone knows, they have been here for almost three decades. These issues are of concern to both the UNHCR and the Thai government. We must accept this. And moreover, as all Asian countries are acknowledging the recent developments in Burma, I think now it is the time for the refugees to go home.”
He said the Thai government would continue to provide assistance to the refugees, and would implement a three-year timeframe for repatriation.
However, some of those working directly with the 120,000 refugees strung along nine camps at the Thai-Burmese border expressed concern that conditions were still not in place for the return of refugees to conflict-torn eastern Burma.
Duncan McArthur, emergency response director for The Border Consortium (TBC), which supplies the majority of humanitarian relief to the 120,000 refugees, said, “TBC is aware that the Internal Security Operations Command convened a seminar about refugees in Thailand this week, and understands that no policy decisions or policy changes were made.
“TBC believes the situation in Southeast Myanmar [Burma] is not yet conducive for an organised and large-scale return of refugees. Refugees and internally displaced persons are primarily looking for a withdrawal of Tatmadaw [Burmese army] troops from populated areas to build confidence towards a future return to former villages or resettlement nearby. Local communities in conflict-affected areas also need support for their own recovery before they will be ready and willing to receive returnees in the future. The premature return of refugees could fuel social tensions and undermine prospects for the reintegration of refugees.”
Speaking to DVB on Friday, Blooming Night Zan, a representative of the Karen Refugee Committee, said, “For the time being, the refugees cannot return because of ongoing ceasefire talks between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups. Fighting is ongoing in some areas, so it is no time to talk about refugees returning home.”
UNHCR could not be reached for comment.
The Thai military conducted a coup d’état in Bangkok on 22 May, and has since cracked down on illegal migrants in Thailand, leading to the arrest of dozens of Burmese and the exodus of some 170,000 Cambodian workers from the country.