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Displaced persons in South‐East Asia

In pdf
Organized by Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia)

April 5, 2004 from 1‐3 PM

 

My name is Nyaw Nyaw and I’m representing the Women’s League of Burma (WLB).

This afternoon I’m going to talk about three things. First, an overview of the situation of Burmese refugees in Thailand. Then, I’m going to describe the Thai government attitude’s towards refugees and finally the concerns of the refugees at the moment.

Overview of Burmese refugees in Thailand

Since Thailand has not signed the 1951 UN convention and the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, it has not recognized refugees in Thailand. Most people from Burma in Thailand without visas or work permits are either ‘displaced persons’ and given temporary asylum in temporary shelters, or are illegal migrants who are vulnerable to deportation, or are “persons of concern” who   outside camps, and are recognized by UNHCR as refugees, but now the Thai authorities want to relocate them to temporary shelters.

There are about 140,000 refugees in official camps along Thailand’s western border.

There are 2,000 urban refugees under UNHCR called persons of concern; these include political refugees.

There are another 500 unregistered asylum seekers, which fall into the illegal migrant category.

There are 50,000 other refugees living outside of the camps in Thai communities along the Thai ‐ Karen border.

There are 200,000 Shan refugees who have entered Thailand since 1996 but have not been recognized by the Thai government.

And finally there are about 1,000,000 migrant workers in Thailand.

In total, there are 400,000 refugees or more in Thailand as defined under the UN convention, but Thailand itself recognizes only around 140,000 of these as displaced persons. Therefore the majority of refugees from Burma have no formal protection mechanism.

Protection:

The best protected refugees in Thailand are displaced persons in the temporary shelters and those who are registered as refugees under UNHCR. But these people still face protection issues. Here are some examples of the problems the refugees face:

Security threat from across the border. Even though there has not been a major attack from across the border on a refugee camp since 1998, the threat is every present in refugee camps. Some refugee camps are as close as 4 km to the border.

Restricted lives: This includes inadequate living space, inadequate services, restricted access for visitors, and restriction on basic liberties such as movement and employment.

Threat of deportation/repatriation: Thailand’s offer of asylum is open only until the situation returns to normal. Refugees continue to arrive although the official policy is that there should be no more refugees.

Abuses against refugees by members of local communities or Thais, such as murder, rape, extortion, and theft.

Refugees found outside the camps face the constant threat of arrest and deportation, and are also vulnerable to exploitation.

Government plans to move urban refugees to the border might not be safe or appropriate for them

The majority of refugees in Thailand fall into the illegal migrant category, including political refugees, those who live in communities outside the camps, Shan refugees and undocumented workers. These people face abuse and exploitation from Thai communities, employers or authorities. They often live and work in dangerous conditions and lack access to health and education facilities.

Although there is no legal protection for these people, there have been attempts to address these issues. For example, some Thai public health facilities provide services for illegal migrants and some Thai educational facilities also accept migrant children. Also, some NGOs provide health and education support to migrants as well. But given the huge number of refugees and migrant workers outside the camps, these efforts are tiny compared with the needs. The reality is that refugees and migrant workers outside the camps enjoy very little protection and are extremely vulnerable.

Thai government attitude toward refugees

The Thai government has claimed that refugees and illegal migrants are a burden for their country: that they destroy the environment, that they take jobs from Thai people, are part of the drug problem and create all kinds of other social and security problems. They say that some of their activities also affect the Thai government’s relationship with Burma. Consequently Thailand would like to stop the flow of new refugees and repatriate those already in Thailand.

The result of these attitudes is as follows:

  • In the camps Thailand has been making it increasingly difficult for new refugees to be registered;
  • The authorities have been making sure that conditions in the camps are not comfortable;

At the same time they have been encouraging UNHCR to promote the idea of voluntary repatriation and in some cases directly encouraging refugees to go home;

  • Thai authorities have decided to also move all of UNHCR’s other registered refugees into camps;

Thailand is reluctant to recognize any new categories of refugees and the rest are treated the same as other illegal migrants. The reality of course is that Thailand gains great benefit from migrant workers with whole segments of the economy entirely dependent on the work force. They cannot afford to eliminate this work force entirely and in practice it cannot try to repatriate over 1,000,000 people

Thai authorities try to regulate migrant worker numbers by registering some of them and by routinely arresting and deporting some others.

Current Thai policy could be described as trying to contain the refugee problem by not allowing it to grow any further and then repatriating them as early as possible. Thailand is concerned that a softer policy on refugees could open the flood to thousands more. In fact, current Thai policy ignores the root causes of refugees being in Thailand and of people fleeing from Burma into Thailand every day. People are coming to Thailand not because it is a nice place, but because they are suffering from systematic human rights abuses including sexual violence against women and girls particularly in the ethnic areas, and the military’s destruction of their homes and livelihoods in Burma.

Unless there is a genuine political change in Burma, the over 400,000 refugees from Burma will not be able to return home soon, and people will keep fleeing into Thailand.

Concerns: Currently refugees are worried about forced repatriation. As described, the Thai government has made it very difficult for refugees to feel safe and comfortable. Refugee organizations are also concerned that decisions about repatriation will be made at a high level and will be made without consulting existing community based organisations who are working on issues such as education and healthcare. We really want our voices to be heard when decisions are being made.

The following are some of our concerns:

Landmines: There are a lot of landmines in the areas where the refugees come from. Unless these landmines are taken away or cleared the return of the refugees will not be safe. It will take some time to demine these areas.

Access: UNHCR has reached an agreement with the Burmese military regime but there are still questions about whether they will be able to do their job effectively in practice. For example, ICRC has been allowed to get access to only 30 villages out of 3,000 villages.

Livelihood: if refugees go back they should have shelter, food, education and healthcare so that theie situation will be sustainable and they will not come back to Thailand looking for these things.

Voluntary repatriation: Of course, any repatriation should be voluntary and carried out ensuring the full safety and dignity of the refugees.

Reintegration: There are now two groups, those who are inside and those who are in Thailand. These people need to be reintegrated so that they can settle down together.

Thank you.