Burmese refugees living in Thailand will face challenges if they are repatriated, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.
The comments follow an announcement made by Thailand’s military government in June that said it would send home around 120,000 refugees who have been living in camps – some for more than two decades – on the Thai-Burmese border.
But non-governmental organisations say they are concerned by a lack of infrastructure to help returnees rebuild their lives.
Thailand’s military government started taking a census on 21 July in the country’s largest camp, Mae La, north of Mae Sot. Authorities said the process is expected to finish at the end of July.
The Border Consortium, which coordinates NGO activity in the camps, has said the camp is home to around 43,000 refugees.
The army said the rare exercise was aimed at controlling illegal migrant workers but could benefit the repatriation process. Currently, the Thai army and NGOs record different numbers of refugees living in the camp.
“The census will have a long-term benefit for the repatriation. In the future, we will have the same database to share with UNHCR and other organisations.” said Col. Terdsak Ngamsanong, the commander of the 4th Infantry Regiment, who oversees border security in Tak province where the camp is located.
The UNHCR’s Bangkok-based spokesperson, Vivian Tan highlighted some of the challenges refugees would encounter if repatriated in the near future.
“Some of the challenges include the absence of a permanent ceasefire, the present of mine fields that never been marked. There is a critical shortage of infrastructure and services. There is limited livelihood opportunity, so all of these affects the sustainability and the safety of the refugee returns,” she said
Burma is emerging from nearly five decades of isolation under repressive military rule.
An estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees live in 10 camps along the Thailand-Burmese border, The Border Consortium has said. Many fled persecution and ethnic wars as well as poverty and have lived in the camps for decades with no legal means of making an income.
Thailand’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 17 July noting that “a possible return of these displaced persons has always been raised”, and the most recent discussion “was in general terms with no specific timeframe”.
Many refugees still do not trust the political situation in Burma.
“I don’t think the Burmese government has changed. We hear that there was fighting in Kachin and Karen states recently. I don’t believe the Burmese government will offer us peace,” said A Shwe, 49 year-old Karen refugee.