CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Concerns and uncertainty over the future of tens of thousands of Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burma border continue to grow as Thai authorities proceed with headcount operations in all nine refugee camps.
Refugees, aid NGOs and the UN said Thai authorities are taking refugees off food distribution lists, tightening restrictions on their movement, and appear to be categorizing residents in order to facilitate their future removal from the camp.
A dearth of information surrounds the actions of the Thai military government, however, and much about the activities remains unclear as neither refugees, aid groups nor the UN have been informed about details of the plan.
The Thai junta, which seized power through a coup in May, announced in the Thai media in recent weeks that it wants to cooperate with Burma to repatriate the refugees by 2015, but it has not mentioned any details of the plan.
Recently, local Thai authorities began carrying out a headcount in the nine camps that have housed some 120,000 refugees for about two decades.
Last week, headcounts were carried out at Mae La, the biggest camp, in Tak Province, and at Ban Mai Nai Soi in Mae Hong Son Province, and smaller camps in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces. Preparations are under way to begin the process in Mae Ra Ma Luang and Mae La Oon camps in Mae Hong Son Province soon.
Saw Honest, chairman of the Mae La camp, which is home to some 40,000 refugees, said Thai soldiers had called residents to assemble at the camp grounds and read out the names of households registered with the camp administration and The Border Consortium (TBC).
If refugees were not present, he said, their names were removed from the household registration cards and they would no longer be eligible for food and other aid distribution from TBC, a coalition of aid organizations supporting the camps.
Saw Honest said he believed that the Thai government had the authority to remove people’s UN refugee status if they were not present in the camp during the headcount, but it appeared that this had not happened so far.
“The [headcount] is the first step. But, we don’t know their intention in the next step,” he said, adding that Thai authorities had told him that the headcount was meant to “update the refugee population registration and they will keep this record as the updated one. It is like they want to clarify who has refugee and who has migrant status.”
He added that the headcount exercise was not affecting refugees who are applying for individual third country resettlement with UN help.
Naw Day Day Poe, deputy secretary of Mae La refugee camp, said, “We don’t know what exactly will happen after this [headcount] program, but things are getting serious.”
Thai military officials told news agency Reuters last week they were conducting the headcount in order to get an updated refugee figure and to ascertain how many refugees were leaving the camp in order to work—which has been prohibited by Thai authorities—or whether economic migrants were among the camp residents.
Many of the refugees regularly leave the camps to find ways to support their livelihoods.
Thai authorities have announced that they delisted some 3,000 camp residents as eligible for refugee support at several camps in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Thai provincial authorities were carrying out the headcount without its involvement, adding that the agency had been kept in the dark about its purposes.
“You’ll have to ask the authorities as we are not involved in the headcount and don’t know what they plan to do with the results,” said Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokesperson.
“From what we can observe, the headcount is being conducted in an inconsistent and ad hoc way across different camps,” Tan said.
“In some camps, refugees are told that if they are not present for the headcounts, they will be taken off food distribution lists. In some other camps they have been told that they do not have to be physically present and that their families or leaders can account for them.”
Duncan McArthur, Partnership Director of TBC, said, “There are precedents of Thai authorities de-registering [UN] refugees for violations of Thai law, but the current purpose of the headcounts is unclear.”
Last week, Thai media reported that a senior junta member would attend a Thai-Burma Regional Border Committee on Aug 1-3 in Mergui, Tennaserim Division, to discuss refugee repatriation with the Burmese government.
The UNHCR has said that conditions in eastern Burma are not yet right for organized repatriation due to presence of unmarked mine fields and the lack of critical infrastructure, services and livelihood opportunities. It said both Burma and Thailand agreed with the UN that the return of refugees should be voluntary and safe.
The refugees, most of them Karen and Karenni minorities, fled ethnic conflict in eastern Burma in the past two decades or so. Thailand has allowed the refugees to stay on its soil and live in camps with support from UN and aid groups, but has long insisted their presence is “temporary” and has put restrictions on camp residents.
A particular concern during the Thai government’s repatriation push is the status of some 58,000 refugees, more than half of all camp residents, who do not have official UNHCR refugee status.
Those who fled Burma after 2005 were prevented from obtaining such a status, as the Thai government withdrew support for the UN registration process, although it did allow refugees to live in camps and register with NGOs for aid. Prior to 2005, the Thai Interior Ministry and the UN had jointly provided official refugee registration cards.
“The vast majority of unregistered refugees appear to have fled from the effects of conflict just like registered refugees before them. It is not clear how unregistered refugees will be treated on this occasion, but they remain more vulnerable to forced repatriation,” said McArthur of TBC.
Htee Wah, a refugee in Mae La Oon camp, said unconfirmed reports circulating among residents and NGO staff suggest that Thai authorities want to dismantle all but one of the refugee camps.
“We heard after the headcount process, refugees who are eligible for third country program will be asked to resettle in the West. Refugees who want to return home will be sent back,” he said. “Those who want to remain in Thailand will be kept in Mae La Ma Luang camp. After that, Thai authorities will shut down the rest of the refugee camps.”
Thai media have previously reported that the Thai government was planning to register refugees in the aforementioned three categories in order to facilitate their repatriation and dismantle or size down the camps.
Thai authorities are also tightening restrictions on movement of the refugees in order to limit opportunities to work outside the camp, said Tu Tu, an official from Karen Refugee Committee in Mae Sariang District, Mae Hong Son Province.
Thai authorities believe that some camp residents are migrants looking for job opportunities, while some refugees work outside of the camp illegally, according to Tu Tu, adding that authorities also allege that Burmese camp residents are involved in illicit cross-border activities such as timber and drug trade, and human trafficking.
Kyor Dah, a refugee in Mae La Onn camp, said, “It seems the Thai regime wants to clear up the refugee population in order to expel unregistered refugees and economic migrants who live in the camp and refugees who live outside the camps.
“If the refugee population decreases, it will be easier for them to shut down the camps,” he said.
“We are very much worried about the inspections by Thai authorities, as they are ordered by the military. Now they [the military] have power, so they can do everything that they want to. They can repatriate us or shut down the camps if they want.”
At Mae La Oon and Mae La Ma Luang camps Thai soldiers have begun patrols near the camps and regular inspections of camp residents’ refugee status and their belongings, Kyor Dah said, adding that in some cases motorbikes and cars without proper documentation were seized from residents.
“They said that refugees should be living like poor refugees. People who own properties are not like refugees,” he added. Many refugees rely on small remittances made by their relatives who resettled in third countries to buy such properties.