Refugees who fled Burma walk at the Mae La refugee camp, near the Burma border in Thailand’s Mae Sot district, Tak province, on July 21, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
More individual and large-scale returns of Burmese refugees from Thailand are expected during the dry season next year, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide assistance to more than 120,000 refugees on the Thai-Burma border.
In its report released Tuesday, the UN’s refugee agency, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said a growing number of refugees in Thailand’s camps were seeking support to return and rebuild their lives back home because they were encouraged by the prospects of the peace process, social and democratic reforms and the new civilian government.
The report said that several hundred Burmese refugees from nine camps along on the Thai-Burma border have approached the UNHCR in recent months seeking support to return home. In response, the UNHCR dispatched a team to conduct voluntary repatriation interviews in Nupo Camp in Thailand’s Tak province.
Iain Hall, the agency’s senior field coordinator in Mae Sot said in the report, “While UNHCR is not promoting or encouraging large-scale returns at this point, we recognize that every refugee has the right to return home and will facilitate their requests as we can.”
Duncan McArthur, partnership director at The Border Consortium (TBC), an NGO that has been providing humanitarian aid to Burmese refugees for more than 20 years, told The Irrawaddy that more refugees from Thailand are expected to return in the dry season next year.
“I think group returns may start to increase in the next dry season [February to May 2017]. But we don’t expect a big movement during the wet season [June to August this year],” McArthur told The Irrawaddy.
The preparation process such as consultations and meetings with community organizations are still going on in the camps and concerned communities, according to McArthur.
Meanwhile, the Karen National Union, an ethnic Karen armed resistance organization, is preparing land allocations and housing to host returning internally displaced persons and refugees. It also has built some houses in territories it controls in Karen State and Tenasserim Division, southeastern and southern Burma.
NGOs like TBC, the UNHCR and the World Food Program will provide assistance such as food, shelters and other supplies to refugees who have returned and are planning to return home, said NGO sources.
“UNHCR will support refugees’ returns if we can confirm that their decision is voluntary and if the Myanmar authorities welcome them home,” wrote Hall, adding the UN refugee agency’s involvement is contingent on there being no significant security issues in the areas of return and assurances that the UNHCR can access those regions to assist local communities and returning refugees.
However, some refugees still have lingering concerns over safety, land and livelihoods, and prefer to take a wait-and-see approach.
Naw Poe, a resident of Nupo Camp, told the UNHCR team that some refugees are, however, still worried about fighting in parts of the country.
She was quoted in their report as saying, “If the Myanmar government can issue an announcement that it welcomes refugees back, that would give people the confidence to return.”
The UNHCR’s staff also informed refugees that the organization can provide assistance such as transportation and reintegration grants and three months of food assistance in cash during the facilitated phase of return.
In Burma, the UNHCR is engaged in community-based livelihood support and is advocating for returning refugees’ right to access public services such as healthcare and education.