New refugees risk being repatriated

Women’s group pleads to Thai Government to let Karen refugees stay

Local Thai authorities are pressuring recent refugees, escaping conflict in Burma, to return home. The refugees, now temporarily residing in Tha Song Yang district in Tak province, do not want to go back to Burma, but say local army officials are exerting pressure for them to leave. This is in spite of documented cases of refugee families being sent back to face danger from landmines and being taken as forced laborers by the Burmese army.

In early February, the Karen Woman Organization (KWO) appealed by letter to the Royal Thai government to stop forced repatriation of these refugee as there is no safe place for them to return to.

The letter said that in recent months, five refugees from the area have been injured or killed by landmines when creeping back into Burma to look after livestock they left behind, including a 13-year-old boy whose leg was blown off in August last year, and a woman who was eight months pregnant had her foot blown apart on January 18, 2010.

The KWO fear for the safety of the refugees and ask the Thai government to consider the risks.

“The Karen Women Organization is urgently appealing to the Royal Thai Government not to forcibly repatriate over 3,000 Karen refugees…, back to a heavily land-mined war-zone in Burma.”

The letter highlighted that the majority of the refugees are women and children.

The Karen Human Right Group (KHRG) in their recent report ‘Unsafe Return’ confirmed returning refugees were injured or killed between June 2009 and January 2010. The KHRG report said more refugees are at risk if they are forced back across the border.

“There is a high probability that more villagers will be killed or injured if they are forced to return…”

KWO Joint Secretary, Blooming Night Zan was reported in the Karen media as saying.

“The Thai army told the refugees that they will send them back on the 5th of February. The area that they are returning to now is land-mined and when groups of people go back, it is risky for their lives. There is no one taking security for them.”

Naw Thoo Lei, a Karen aid worker who is working with the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) says the situation is complex.

“Everyone wants to return home, they [refugees] all say ‘yes’, but only on the condition that when they do go home it is safe. Refugees say now is not the time. The area is heavily landmined. If these people are sent home now, it can be guaranteed they’ll be back for hospital care in a matter of weeks.”

Naw Thoo Lei says the situation is not safe for refugee to return home to work the land.

“If their farms are land-mined, how are they going to survive.”

According to people inside the temporary sites, the local authority is trying to stop humanitarian aid, especially food ration, distribution to refugees who are staying out of the sites or are not in their registration list. The local authority regards the aids as a reason the refugees stay in Thailand.

The KHRG report says. “Services at the camp [temporary site] should not been seen as a pull factor encouraging the refugees to remain in Thailand”.

The report argues. “…leaving behind their homes, fields and livelihoods, this is not a decision made lightly, particularly for villagers who are primarily subsistence farmers and have an intense connection to their land.”

On 27th January representatives from the local Thai authority, UNCHR, TBBC, IRC, US Embassy, KNU, DKBA and temporary sites leaders met to discuss the issue. The local Thai officials made it clear that these new refugees will not be relocated to Mae La refugee camp.

The group agreed that there will be voluntary repatriation for those who are willing to return and if they can.  For those who cannot go back safely alternatives solution will need to be found.  At the meeting group failed to identify these solutions.

At the meeting the local Thai military insisted that hundreds of people at Nong Bua sites, one of the three temporary sites, expressed their wish to return to Burma.

In contrast, UNHCR and TBBC said that in their interviews and discussion with the refugees most people were not coming forward to express their wish to return and, in fact most people have been consistently expressing their fear to go back for reasons of landmines, human rights abuses, and lack of access to livelihoods, health care, water and sanitation.

Sources from inside the temporary sites also complained that the Thai soldiers are also going house to house urging refugees to says ‘yes’ when they are asked if they want to go back and are making them to want to leave the place.

Blooming Night Zan quoted in the appeal letter said.

“This evidence of people stepping on the landmines is a sure sign that the situation is still very dangerous. Although the Thai government is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention, the KWO is very grateful to His Majesty the Thai King, and the Thai government, for a long history of kindness to refugees. We appeal to the Thai authorities now to show your humanitarian kindness again.”

The KWO is a Karen community based organization working community development works including women empowerment, education, health and cultural promotion and preservation.


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