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June 22, 2012

Amid Burma Reforms, Steps to Resettle Those Displaced by Conflict

by Ron Corben

BANGKOK, Thailand - Burma is developing plans, backed by the United Nations, to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them internally displaced or living in camps in Thailand.

While Thai officials are welcoming the action, U.N. agencies and rights groups say Thailand itself must address issues of greater protection to refugees and trafficked persons.

There are more than 450,000 internally displaced people inside Burma, also known as Myanmar. They are mostly in the eastern states where ethnic Karen and Shan communities have fought long standing conflicts with the central government.

The UNHCR is opening regional offices in Burma and talking with refugee groups to prepare for resettlement.

Kitty McKinsey, a UNHCR spokesperson, says the priority in resettlement is with the internally displaced.

“It’s the strategy of the ethnic groups themselves and the government, but mainly the ethnic groups themselves that they want the people who are displaced within Myanmar to go home first," she said. "That seems an issue of fairness and it seems a good strategy that they would go home first and make sure they can settle in then the refugees would come home. So that is going on.”

But McKinsey says challenges to the resettlement process include demining villages that have been in conflict zones and providing jobs to the returnees.

There are also some 140,000 ethnic Burmese in Thailand who have been living in refugee camps - some for as long as three decades.

The political reforms in Burma over the past year have lifted the hopes of many in the refugee camps of returning home.

Chairperson of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation (TCR) Thongtong Chantarangsu, says the initial steps of programs inside Burma to assist the internally displaced are underway.

Thongtong says most refugees from the camps will return home in the coming years.

“I wish I could say that in the next 10 years we’ll see a drastic change in Myanmar and the numbers of refugees, 100, 000 of them, who have been here for over 10 years, can be back to their homeland,” said Thongtong.

The renewed effort to resettle Burmese refugees living in Thailand comes as Thai authorities are under scrutiny for their refugee policies.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, says the country’s overall refugee protection measures have shown little improvement over the years.

“There is no refugee law. Refugees, recognized by the UNHCR as refugees are still treated by the Thai Immigration Department as undocumented migrants; are still arrested and slammed into the IDC [Immigration Detention Center] in indefinite detention," said Robertson. "There’s a promise to change laws - it’s all process - we haven’t seen any concrete changes.”

The U.S. Government and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons have both released reports critical of Thailand’s policies towards the trafficking of people and the rights of migrants.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Joy Ngazi Ezeilo, in a report on Thailand presented Friday in Geneva, pointed to several shortcomings in Thai law enforcement and inadequate support for those persons trafficked. She was also critical of restrictive immigration policies and abuse of human rights of migrants.