CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Thai and Burmese authorities will begin talks soon over plans for the repatriation of Burmese refugees, but the UN refugee agency cautions that many obstacles remain to their safe return home, including land mines and the possibility of further conflict.
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said conditions in southeastern Burma, where most of the Burmese refugees in Thailand camps come from, are not conducive to an organized repatriation at this time.
“There are still challenges on the ground, including the absence of a permanent ceasefire, the presence of unmarked mine fields and the lack of critical infrastructure, services and livelihood opportunities,” she told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
Thai and Burmese authorities will meet to discuss repatriation from Aug. 1-3 in Mergui, in southern Burma. The meeting will be attended by Lt-Gen Preecha Chan-ocha, co-chairman of the Thai-Burma Regional Border Committee, according to a recent report by the Bangkok Post newspaper, which cited a Thai army source.
“Lt-Gen Preecha will inspect progress of a port construction project in Mergui and discuss preparations to relocate about 130,000 Burmese refugees,” the newspaper reported.
The army source added that the Thai junta’s policy is to “send back all of them [the refugees] and close down all nine camps to end chronic security problems posed by the refugees.”
Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium (TBC), a humanitarian aid organization that provides aid to the refugees, said her organization did not expect to be invited to the bilateral meeting between Thai and Burmese authorities.
“We understand that discussions between Thai and Burmese authorities have been in general terms, but we are not aware of any specific plans or time frame [for repatriation]. Currently all sides agree that return should be according to international principles,” she told The Irrawaddy.
Tan also said the UNHCR would not attend the bilateral talks between Thai and Burmese authorities. However, she said the UNHCR’s position on voluntary repatriation was in line with that of both governments, which she said had reaffirmed their commitment for a safe return of refugees in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles.
“In short, all parties agree that any refugee returns to Burma must be voluntary and be conducted in safety and dignity,” she said.
According to the Bangkok Post, Thailand has divided the refugees into three categories: refugees who want to return home, those who wish to resettle in a third country, and those who were born in refugee camps on Thai soil and wish to remain in Thailand.
Eligible refugees who have UNHCR registration documents and do not want to return to Burma can still apply for individual resettlement in a third country, but the process will take longer, according to Thompson.
Tan said registered refugees in the camps—especially those with specific protection concerns or vulnerabilities—can approach the UNHCR to express their interest in resettlement to a third country, or they can be identified as candidates for this by the UNHCR and its partners.
“That has always been the case. We submit their cases to the resettlement countries for consideration, and at the end of the day it is the resettlement countries that decide whether or not to accept these individuals,” she said.
“The US, Canada and Australia have not stopped resettling Myanmar [Burmese] refugees from Thailand’s border camps, but continue to accept Burmese refugees from Thailand on an individual basis. Vulnerable refugees can still access resettlement to Australia, Canada and the US and be considered on an individual basis,” she added.
However, the US group resettlement program, which featured a simplified procedure to process Burma refugees, came to an end in January, she said.
The UNHCR spokesperson said there had been no agreement about what will happen to refugees who are unable or unwilling to repatriate or resettle in a third country.
According to TBC, the current policy of Thailand does not allow refugees to work outside the camps and there are no indications that local integration will be offered as a long-term solution.