BANGKOK — Conditions in Burma are not yet right for refugees living in camps near the border to return home, the U.N. said on Wednesday as concerns mount after the Thai military government pledged to repatriate them.
“There’s been a lot of positive developments (in Myanmar) in the last two and a half years or so but… we don’t feel that the conditions are fully in place for organized refugee return,” Vivian Tan, Bangkok-based spokesperson for UNHCR, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Challenges include the absence of a permanent ceasefire in eastern Burma, land mines and unmarked minefields, and a lack of infrastructure, basic services and jobs, she said.
“All of this affects the sustainability and safety of any refugee return.”
After the Thai military on Monday launched a refugee headcount in Mae La – the largest of nine camps along the border – refugees told Thomson Reuters Foundation that they fear being forcibly returned to Burma.
However, the Thai junta has reassured aid groups, including UNHCR, that the return would be voluntary and no timeframe has been set.
“We spoke to the Thai government, and they clarified that the policy remains the same [as before], that any returns to Myanmar must be voluntary, must be dignified and safe,” Tan said.
“[The refugees] fled a terrible situation back home and of course they have trust issues and they’re suspicious of the different actors involved,” she said.
“We as humanitarian actors have to try our best to try and provide whatever information we can in an objective way. I think that’s the best way we can try manage their anxiety.”
There are approximately 120,000 Burmese refugees living in Thailand. The first waves poured across the border three decades ago after the Burmese military launched attacks against ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Burma near the Thai border.