Thailand’s migration and refugee policies have shifted since the military’s coup d’état in May. The Thai junta has initiated a policy of labor reforms, including a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers to allegedly combat corruption and human trafficking.
Most of the 2.2 million registered migrant workers in Thailand are Burmese, but labor rights activists estimate there are an additional 3 million workers who are undocumented. The majority of these migrants work in the construction and fishing sectors and many, including those with legal rights to work, report exploitation by their employers. A recent report by the Guardian explained how Burmese workers were sold by traffickers and forced to work on fishing boats, without being allowed to return to the mainland for years. But there have also been stories of abuse and mistreatment of migrants by the police. It is no wonder that when rumors spread of the Thai junta’s crackdown, more than 200,000 Cambodians fled back home, fearful of violence towards them.
The junta’s policy shift may also be affecting Burmese refugees living along the border, who have received mixed signals regarding their repatriation. Since the beginning of June, movement restrictions have been more strictly enforced for the Burmese refugees living in camps. They are banned from leaving the camps, confined to their homes from 6pm to 6am, and threatened with deportation if they don’t comply.
In July, the Thai junta pledged to send back to Myanmar about 100,000 of the 130,000 refugees living in the border camps – some of whom have been there for more than two decades. From August 1 to August 3, Thai and Burmese authorities met in the Burmese town of Mergui to talk about these plans, and a Thai army source told the Irrawaddy newspaper that the junta aimed to “send back all of them [the refugees] and close down all nine camps to end chronic security problems posed by the refugees.” Despite these actions, Thai authorities have reportedly assured the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that the return of the refugees will be voluntary, dignified, and safe, and that no time frame has been set.
Although the situation in Myanmar has improved over the last two and a half years, organizations such as the UNHCR state that the country is not ready for a sustainable, safe, and organized refugee return. Challenges include the absence of a permanent ceasefire in eastern Myanmar; the presence land mines and unmarked minefields; insufficient infrastructure and jobs for returnees; and a lack of safeguards on issues such as citizenship, land rights, security, identity documents, and healthcare.
According to the Bangkok Post, the Thai government has divided the refugees into those who want to return to Myanmar, those who wish to resettle in another country country, and those who were born and wish to remain in Thailand. There have been no decisions about what will happen to refugees who are unable or unwilling to repatriate or resettle in a third country, and there are no indications that local integration will be offered as a long-term solution. Meanwhile, Thai authorities have begun conducting a census of Burmese refugees at the country’s largest camp, which some refugees fear could lead to their immediate repatriation.
While we await further developments in Thailand, the world should remain vigilant. Though the Thai government has given assurances concerning the voluntary, safe, and dignified nature of any refugee returns to Myanmar, it will be important for the humanitarian community to monitor the situation closely and ensure that refugees are not pressured to return prematurely.
Leticia Isasi is an intern at Refugees International.