Nine out of 10 refugees in the largest camp on the Thai-Burma border would prefer to resettle in third countries or stay in Thailand instead of being repatriated to Burma, according to a recent survey by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
More than 120,000 refugees have been living outside Burma in camps on the Thai side of the border, some for almost 30 years after fleeing their homes. When asked about a return to Burma, the main concern of refugees in the Mae La camp was security, according to the survey, which was administered jointly by the UNHCR and Thailand’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation.
“When we asked them about their main concerns over returning to Myanmar, they cited a continuing lack of trust in the current cessation of hostilities, a perceived lack of status or citizenship, as well as concerns over economic livelihoods, access to land, insufficient infrastructure in places of intended return, and security,” Vivian Tan, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy.
“There is no permanent ceasefire in many potential areas of return, and there are still problems like landmines, land disputes, and a general lack of services and infrastructure. We feel that at the moment, not all the conditions are in place for organized returns to take place in a safe and
sustainable way,” Tan added.
The Border Consortium (TBC), a humanitarian aid organization that has provided food supplies and other aid to the refugees for about 30 years, is also focusing on preparations for the return of refugees to Burma amid reductions in funding of humanitarian work on the border.
However, there is no set return date as the various ceasefires between the government and ethnic armed groups are not enough to ensure refugees’ safety, said Sally Thompson, the executive director of TBC.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Thompson said, “The mechanism of implementation for the ceasefires is still to be worked out. Although individual ethnic groups have reached ceasefire agreements, they still have not decided on important issues like demarcation of troops, code of conduct, monitoring mechanism. At this moment, the ceasefire is just an agreement. And those mechanisms have not yet been put into place. It is a very early stage.”
According to the survey, many of refugees said they believed that if they were to return to Burma, they would be involved in agriculture and raising livestock, highlighting the need for such occupational training while still in Thailand. Among the reintegration assistance potentially needed, the refugees requested help with access to land, as well as cash assistance to rebuild their homes, and for crop seeds and tools.
Tan confirmed that there was no fixed timeline for an organized return. The UNHCR is monitoring developments in Burma and noting how refugees’ feelings and plans for voluntarily returning evolve over time. The UNHCR will continue to insist that any return must be voluntary, conducted with dignity, and to a safe environment, she added.
The UNHCR survey, however, found that more than half of the refugees who said they preferred to resettle in third-party countries or remain in Thailand were unregistered and therefore not eligible for third-party resettlement. According to a Thai government policy, only registered refugees who hold UN ID cards qualify for resettlement in third-party nations.
Most of the border refugees are ethnic Karen who have fled their homes in eastern Burma since the 1980s. Those who fled from war in the 1980s began registering in 2005. However, many of the political dissidents and economic refugees who fled Burma after 2005 fail to qualify for registration with the UNHCR.
The survey took place from June to July this year in Mae La refugee camp, the biggest border camp with an estimated population of more than 40,000 refugees. There are nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.
The survey questions were aimed at understanding refugee sentiment and hopes for the future, but there is no guarantee that those surveyed will see their preferred option realized. More than 6,500 households participated in the voluntary exercise, representing 36,900 individual refugees and over 80 percent of the camp population.