Forced Repatriation of Karen Refugees to Start – The Irrawaddy

Thai authorities will start deporting 3,000 Karen refugees living in Tha Song Yang camp back to Burma on Friday.

Karen refugees walk along a road on the Thai-Burmese border around 100 km north of Mae Sot in June 2009. (Photo: Getty Images)

Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) spokesperson Blooming Night Zan said that 35 families comprised of 165 people will be the first to be repatriated, while speaking at a press conference in Bangkok on Thursday.

This is despite pleas from the refugees and from more than 70 Thai and Thai-based Burmese NGOs that the group be allowed to stay in Thailand.

The refugees fled fighting in Burma between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU) in June 2009, and now fear for their safety if they return to their homes in a heavily mined area still occupied by the DKBA. The DKBA is an ally of the Burmese army.

All 3,000 refugees are to be sent back to Burma by Feb. 15, according to Surapong Kongchantuk, the vice-chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities, the Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Persons of the Lawyers Council of Thailand.

Surapong said that repatriation should be suspended until landmines are cleared from the refugees’ region of origin, and until the refugees are willing to go back voluntarily.

UNHCR spokesperson Kitty McKinsey told The Irrawaddy: “We met the Thai authorities on Jan. 28 to discuss this issue, and we reached an agreement with them that no forced repatriation would take place.” She said that the UNCHR expects the Thai authorities to honour that agreement.

Blooming Night Zan said that this is the second time the Thai military has sought to send the refugees back to Burma, despite the fact that “landmines are a real danger and there is no indication that these are clear.”

Five refugees from the area have either been killed or injured by landmines when slipping back into Burma to see to livestock left behind when fleeing. One woman, eight months pregnant, had her foot blown apart on Jan. 18, according to a recent KWO statement.

UNCHR spokesperson McKinsey told The Irrawaddy that officials talk to the refugees all the time, and they are very nervous about going back home. “All refugee returns to Myanmar [Burma] must be voluntary. In our interviews with the refugees, none expressed any desire to return home.”

Some of the refugees were already displaced from their homes in Burma, prior to fleeing to Thailand. About 1,200 came from Ler Per Her IDP camp, just inside Karen State, on the Thailand-Burma border. Christian Solidarity Worldwide says it has visited this camp many times in the past and that its sources say that “it is now riddled with landmines and under the control of the DKBA.”

In an open letter to the Thai prime minister, the chairperson of the National Security Council, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the signatories, numbering more than 70 NGOs, urged the Thai authorities to “suspend any action to push the refugees back, pending genuine participatory and open investigation led by authorities and the UNHCR.”

The letter stated that the Thai military insists “that safeguards have been put in place to ensure safety of returned refugees in compliance with international standards.” When asked by The Irrawaddy what specific safeguards were discussed, Friends of Burma representatives at Friday’s press conference said that the Thai military had not outlined the safeguards in any detail.

Surapong said that the Thai military told representatives lobbying for the refugees that it would assist in landmine clearance in the affected region, if it was granted access by the relevant bodies inside Burma.

The letter will be given to the Thai premier on Friday. However, Surapong told The Irrawaddy that “this issue is more to do with the army than the government.” He said, “In principle, the government can decide what to do with this case, but in reality, it seems the army has more power.”

Thai army chief Gen Anupong will be in the US until Feb. 15, which is the deadline for all the Karen refugees to be returned to Thailand.

Asked by The Irrawaddy if international intervention could make any difference on this issue, Surapong said that he at least hopes that Thais living in the US could raise this issue as soon as possible.

The Burmese military has a long history of scorched earth campaigns in ethnic minority regions, part of its “4 cuts” strategy to defeat ethnic minority armies such as the KNU. The Burmese army has also cleared villages and farmlands to facilitate natural resource extraction and transportation. A Harvard University study last year said that the scale of destruction and displacement ranked alongside that carried out in Sudan’s Darfur region. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was scheduled to rule on Thursday on whether the Sudanese regime carried out a genocide in that region.

Benedict Rogers, the East Asia Team Leader at CSW, in a press statement issued on Wednesday said: “There is a severe risk that if they return, the Karen refugees will be subjected to severe human rights violations, including forced labour and rape by soldiers of the Burma Army. This is an urgent situation which requires immediate international attention.”

Thailand could find itself again in the international spotlight, if the repatriation goes ahead. This latest episode follows the recent deportation of around 4,000 Hmong refugees back to Laos, despite international pleas for the Hmong to be allowed to stay in Thailand.

Thailand has sent 100 tons of rice to Haiti, to help feed the 2-3 million affected by the disaster there.

“It is only right that Thailand is sending relief to Haiti after the earthquake there, but there are refugees in Thailand who have nothing, who need help as well,” Surapong said.

Thailand hosts more than 150,000 Burmese refugees, mainly in camps along the northern Thai border with Burma. An estimated 2 to 3 million more Burmese work in Thailand, mostly illegally.

Zoya Phan, International Coordinator fot the Burma Campaign UK, said: “Over the past 25 years Thailand has earned the respect of the international community by giving shelter to refugees fleeing abuses in Burma. If refugees are now forced to return it will not only be morally unacceptable, it will also damage the reputation of Thailand in the eyes of the world.”

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