Dispatch

‘We Cannot Go Back to Myanmar’

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been living on the Thai border for decades. Now they may be forced to return to the country they once fled.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

TAK PROVINCE, Thailand — A group of children peers through a barbed-wire fence at the trucks barreling down Thailand’s Highway 105. Huddled in one of the thousands of bamboo huts that spread underneath the sheer mountains in northeastern Thailand’s Tak province, the children watch as security forces stop and search an aid vehicle at the entrance of Mae La refugee camp. Just eight kilometers from the Thai-Myanmar border, the camp is home to 44,000 refugees, most of them ethnic Karens, who escaped the decades-long civil war in Myanmar’s Karen state.

Saw K’Du, 62, is one of the thousands of villagers who fled the conflict, crossing the border into Thailand in 1984 amid an offensive by government forces in Karen state. After first settling in one camp, Saw K’Du and his family were moved to Mae La camp in 1997, where he has been living ever since. After 17 years, Saw K’Du and his wife, a teacher in the camp, think of their small leaf-covered hut as home. But life for Saw K’Du is increasingly difficult. "It’s hard for us refugees to go outside and find work or even find food now because we are no longer allowed to leave the camp, unlike before," Saw K’Du says, sitting in his 4-by-4-meter hut.

"The refugees talk about the new restrictions, and we worry the Thai government will send us back in a matter of months."

According to the Border Consortium, an organization that administers aid in the camps, around 120,000 Myanmar refugees live in the nine camps along the border. These individuals, many of whom have been displaced for decades, have long lived in uncertainty. Thailand has not signed the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, leaving refugees with few codified legal protections under Thai law. What’s more, in 2005 Thailand indefinitely halted the UNHCR process of registering camp residents as internationally recognized refugees, leaving 58,000 people without official refugee status.

In recent months, the sudden enforcement of laws restricting daily life and renewed negotiations between Thai and Myanmar authorities about the terms of refugee repatriation have, more than ever before, stoked fears about the future of life in the camps.

The first refugee camps in Thailand were built in 1984. Although fighting between the Burmese army and a constellation of ethnic armed groups had been active since 1949, a series of offensives by government troops against the Karen National Union (KNU) — the ethnic insurgency in Karen state — in the 1980s and 1990s pushed hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand.

Over the past three decades, Thailand’s camps became communities for the dislocated. International donors built strong assistance programs for the refugees, providing schooling for the children and basic health services for a variety of diseases, including tuberculosis. Refugees themselves built places of worship and basic shops to augment a modest supply of rations. 

The status quo drastically changed in November 2010, however, with Myanmar’s political transition from a military junta to a nominally civilian government. Myanmar was no longer a pariah state, and donors began moving grant money away from organizations on the border to those working inside the country. Although ethnic conflict continued in certain regions, in 2012 Myanmar President Thein Sein signed a preliminary cease-fire agreement with the KNU. With the emergence of a democratic government in Myanmar and the end of hostilities in Karen state, the possibility of repatriation — the process of returning refugees to their country of origin — was, for the first time in decades, a distinct possibility. 

At the same time, the camps underwent significant changes. A sharp drop in funding for international organizations like the Border Consortium, which administers food rations, led to two consecutive years of ration cuts. Rice rations, for example, were cut from 16 kilograms to 8 kilograms per person per month in eight of the nine camps, including Mae La. Then, in July of this year, Thai authorities began enforcing laws banning residents from leaving the confines of camps without official permission. Before the stricter regulations, it was not uncommon for refugees to work outside the camps on farms or in local factories in order to make ends meet. Now, unable to supplement their income, refugees say they are struggling more than ever.

"As a refugee, you are simply not allowed to move around outside like before," one ethnic Karen community worker in Mae La says, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The situation has totally changed."

The recent constraints on movement have coincided with renewed discussions between Thai and Myanmar officials regarding the refugees’ future. A statement by Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 17 confirmed a meeting between Thailand’s leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, and the commander in chief of the Myanmar army, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is in control of the country’s Border Affairs Ministry. Although no precise timeline for repatriation was divulged, the statement reiterated the Thai government’s commitment to pushing the process ahead: "Preparedness for a sustainable return of these displaced persons in safety and dignity is vital."

Under U.N. guidelines, sustainable refugee repatriation should be voluntary, conducted in safety, and done so in a way that ensures that refugees will have a life of dignity when they return. Thailand has stated that it will not force refugees back and will conduct return under international principles. Yet community leaders and aid workers on the border argue that the recent restrictions on movement are leaving refugees with little choice but to consider returning home as daily life becomes increasingly unsustainable in the camps.

"We see all of these things together as a way of forcing people to return home," says Naw K’nyaw Paw, secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, which works with ethnic Karen inside the camps. "If you don’t have enough food, cannot get treated when you are sick, and children cannot go to school, you will have to leave the camp and try to survive."

The Karen community worker in Mae La added that refugees were being left with little choice but to take their chances in Myanmar. "We cannot go to supplement our rations, which have already been reduced. This is a push factor for the refugees."

Many have taken the hint. Iain Hall, the senior field coordinator for UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, noted that some refugees in the border camps were already returning to Myanmar. "We have seen several thousand refugees start to go home," Hall says. "Not very announced, not organized, but they have said for them the conditions are right for return. But for the large majority, they may not feel that the time is right."

In spite of Myanmar’s recent political reforms, areas near the border are unstable. While the government is negotiating a nationwide cease-fire with a range of armed groups, including the KNU, ethnic-minority areas are heavily militarized. Although active hostilities are largely confined to the Kachin and Shan states, Karen state has recently witnessed renewed violence. On Sept. 9, KNU forces shot at a Myanmar army patrol that had crossed into KNU territory. Soon after, on Sept. 27, the Myanmar army clashed with rebels on the outskirts of Myawaddy.

The latest violence underscores broader concerns about the quality of life that awaits returned refugees. More than 3,700 villages were razed or abandoned during the height of the war in the 1980s and 1990s. Eastern Myanmar is still contaminated with land mines, and farmland can be as much a hazard to locals as a potential source of food and income. Meanwhile, human rights organizations continue to document government forces perpetrating gross human rights abuses in ethnic-minority areas, including rape, torture, and indiscriminate shelling.

Vivian Tan, also from UNHCR, admitted that Myanmar is not in a position to look after tens of thousands of returning refugees. "While UNHCR and other aid agencies have heightened levels of preparedness in light of positive developments in Myanmar in the last two years, we have consistently said that a number of conditions in southeastern Myanmar, where the refugees come from, are not yet fully conducive to organized returns. This includes the absence of a permanent cease-fire, the presence of minefields, and lack of critical infrastructure in some areas," she says.

Although Thai authorities have repeatedly stated that refugee return will be conducted in accordance with "humanitarian and human rights principles," as Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in its July 17 statement, Saw K’Du wonders what future awaits his family if they return. "We cannot go back to Myanmar," Saw K’Du says. "We worry that the fighting will break out again. There is no real peace there." 

More than ever before, Saw K’Du feels helpless: With little say over the policies that regulate his daily life in the camp, returning to strife-racked Myanmar may still be an option.

"I don’t know what will happen to us," Saw K’Du says. "But what can we do?"

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