News / Asia

Karen Refugees in Thailand Wary of Return to Burma

Karen refugees practice their singing before a morning prayers at a church inside Mae La refugee camp in Tha Song Yang district, Tak province northern Thailand, Jan. 19, 2012.
Karen refugees practice their singing before a morning prayers at a church inside Mae La refugee camp in Tha Song Yang district, Tak province northern Thailand, Jan. 19, 2012.
Despite Burma’s political opening in recent years, most of the roughly 130,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand are not expecting to return any time soon. A first-of-its kind U.N. survey of refugees indicates that many remain wary of heading back across the border.

A pilot socioeconomic survey commissioned by a United Nations agency has found the majority of those living in the largest refugee camp in Thailand prefer either to be resettled in a third country or to stay in Thailand.

Mireille Girard, the representative in Thailand of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the responses from more than 6,500 households in the Mae La Temporary Shelter (in Tak province), captured the mood of those living in the camps.

“A lot of people are still making up their mind as we speak. They've not really set their minds. And we're not asking them to make a choice at this stage. We're just trying to assess their intention and aspirations so we can help prepare better for the solutions that they are imagining for themselves,” said Girard.

Only a small number at Mae La expressed a preference to return. The majority cited a continuing lack of trust in the Burmese government and a perceived lack of status or citizenship there. They also mentioned worries about security, how they would make a living and the lack of infrastructure in the communities they fled.

Nearly all of those living in the Mae La camp are ethnic Karen who fled their homeland to escape repression by the military in Burma (also known as Myanmar). There is no permanent cease-fire in most places to which the refugees would return.

UNHCR's Girard concurs conditions have not yet been met for those in Thailand to return home.

“Amnesty, freedom of choice by people of the place that they want to return to, access by humanitarian agencies so we make sure we can visit people on return, etc. These will need to put in place when the time is ripe for people to return, when they are willing to return and eager to return in big numbers. And at that time then we will shift to promoting repatriation. At the moment we are not yet there,” said Girard.

About 130,000 refugees are residing in nine border camps in Thailand. Many of those were born in exile. Eighty percent of the camps' residents are ethnic Karen.

Since 2005, more than 83,000 people who fled Burma to Thailand have resettled in third countries, with most going to the United States.

Thailand ended registration of refugees in 2006 and has maintained that those who are not documented are ineligible to move to a third country. An exception, since last year, is for those who have family members who have resettled elsewhere.

An estimated one million Burmese reside in Thailand, most of them undocumented migrant workers.

After 60 years of military rule, Burma peacefully transitioned in 2010 to a quasi-civilian government. But active or retired army officers continue to wield great authority.

Cease-fire agreements with most of the 13 non-state armed groups are deemed by some observers to be in jeopardy with occasional clashes continuing between ethnic rebels and the Burmese military.

Ethnic Burman dominance over the Karen and other minorities has long been the catalyst for separatist rebellions and has compelled thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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