The situation for ethnic Karen refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burma border remains a concern for the US but third-country resettlement is unrealistic, a top US official has warned.
Eric Schwartz, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, last week visited the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai side of the border that is home to some 40,000 Karen refugees, of a total of nearly 140,000 in camps along the border.
He told DVB that the purpose of the trip was to “look at efforts to meet the needs of vulnerable Burmese refugees” in the camps, as well as meeting with various NGOs and advocacy groups along the border.
But despite “particular concern” over the refugees that he voiced prior to the border trip, “third-country resettlement isn’t going to be the solution for the large majority of refugees here or anywhere else in the world”.
“There are around 20 million refugees around the world,” he said. “Ultimately the best answer is for conditions in their country of origin to change – but there is little indication that that situation is going to change any time soon in Burma.
His comments came after the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), Bo Kyi, said that his group would urge Schwartz to help resettle former political prisoners who “have been in the refugee camps for so many years”.
While the US already has a policy to accept refugees, Schwartz reportedly told Khin Ohmar, foreign affairs secretary for theNetwork for Democracy and Development (NDD), that third-country resettlement “is up to the Thai government…and the US can only suggest that the Thai government speeds up their procedures”.
With the Burmese government preparing for elections and aggressively attempting to transform ceasefire groups into Border Guard Forces, observers have warned that more refugees could flee Burma over the coming months.
The last major exodus by Karen into Thailand was in June last year, when around 5,000 fled after fighting erupted between Burmese troops and the opposition Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). Many of those were forced to shelter in caves and rudimentary shacks along the Thai-Burma border.
The situation in Karen state remains volatile, despite the Thai government’s attempts to repatriate the 5,000 refugees back to Burma at the beginning of this year. Landmines laid by both the Burmese army and the KNLA litter the countryside, and civilians are at risk of being forcibly recruited by government troops.
“Decisions over whether people can return have to be based on the conditions in Burma and they cannot simply be made because an election has taken place,” Schwartz said.
“Right now the preparations going on in Burma give no confidence that these elections are going to have international legitimacy, or be free and fair, so if the elections don’t change conditions in Burma then you can’t send people back.”