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Ethnic Karen refugees from Burma shelter from heavy rain at Mae La camp outside Mae Sot, Thailand. (Photo: Reuters)
Local authorities have been conducting an informal survey regarding refugee repatriation at several camps by the Thai-Burmese border, as well as collecting the opinions of inhabitants regarding their future, according to sources in the area.

The move comes amid the Burmese government negotiating with several ethnic armed groups in order to achieve a nationwide peace, and resettlement projects for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are considered a key part of this reconciliation process.

There are around 150,000 mostly ethnic Karen refugees living in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border, and an estimated 1.5 million IDPs living in temporary shelters inside Burma itself, according to relief and humanitarian aid agencies.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a humanitarian agency providing aid to refugees, said that the Thai authorities have been conducting the informal survey in some, but not all, camps since mid-March. They sampled 100 people from each chosen camp to find out their views, she added.
“It is just a gathering exercise to get an idea of what the refugees want to do in the future and where they want to go,” said Thompson.

Only Burmese refugees with official registration documents qualify for resettlement in a third country, but now there are many new unregistered arrivals at the camps. At least 70,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in third countries so far, according to TBBC figures.

The survey has been conducted in Mae La camp, the largest refugee center in Tak Province, and two Karenni refugee camps in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand.

Saw Htun Htun, the chairman of the Mae La camp, said that local Thai authorities visited two weeks ago with four options offered in the survey—returning to Burma, resettlement in a third country, gaining community integration status (receiving an identity card similar to local hill tribe people in Thailand) or another suggestion of their own.

He said that the Thai authorities want to know in advance what percentage of refugees hope to return to Burma, how many would prefer to resettle in a third country and what proportion want to stay in Thailand.

Htun Htun, however, said that it is impossible to repatriate refugees at the moment and the process could take around five years.

Observers have also said that many issues need to be addressed before any resettlement can begin in Burma. These include the demining of conflict zones, deciding where returnees would live and getting the support of international humanitarian groups.

As the Thai authorities intend to close down the Burmese refugee camps one day, they need to know what the refugees themselves want to do if government peace deals with ethnic armed groups prove successful, said Thompson.

In a meeting with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) rebel group in northern Thailand, Burmese Railways Minister Aung Min, the government’s leading peace negotiator, said that Naypyidaw wants to begin resettling IDPs and war refugees before the start of the rainy season, which begins in June.

But Sally Thompson said, “I think that timeframe is unrealistic. We understand that the priority is [to resettle] IDPs before refugees on the Thai-Burmese border.”

Due to armed conflicts between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, thousands of civilians in border areas have been forced to abandoned their homes and hide in temporary shelters in the jungle. Many cross into neighboring countries, especially Thailand, where they have lived in makeshift camps for more than two decades.


 


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