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Dozens of refugees in Thailand return to Burma

Refugee returns from Thailand are pictured with some of their belongings on Monday.

More than 90 refugees from Burma on Monday returned home from Thailand as part of an official repatriation agreement between the Thai and Burmese governments.

Ninety-three people — comprising 28 households in total from five refugee camps in Thailand — were repatriated to Burma. Of them, 73 returned via Myawaddy in Karen State and a welcoming ceremony was held for the remaining 20 at Mese in Kayah State.

The refugees who arrived in Myawaddy were greeted by Burmese government officials including the chief minister of Karen State, Nan Khin Htwe Myint.

Linn May, a coordinator for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, said 161 refugees initially signed up for Monday’s repatriation via Myawaddy but only 73 followed through.

The refugees included those from Karen and Kayah states, and Yangon, Bago and Sagaing regions. Their repatriation from Thailand was also assisted by the International Organization for Migration.

“UNHCR and its UN partners, as well as non-governmental and community-based organisations, support refugees who voluntarily wish to return from Thailand to Myanmar by providing information on conditions in return areas, counselling, and other assistance, such as transportation and reintegration support,” the UN agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

“UNHCR works to ensure that any returns are voluntary, safe, and conducted in a dignified manner.”

Saw Htoo Wa, a returnee from the Kayah refugee camp-1, said his family decided to return to Burma as livelihood conditions became more difficult in the camp following ration cuts.

“We were forced to return here by ration cuts — life used to be more comfortable over there but recently there have been ration cuts. We used to get a basket of rice but now less than that,” said Saw Htoo Wa.

The Kayah government has pledged to provide support for the returning refugees, including modest monthly rations of rice, drinking water, cash and other household commodities.

Children are among this week’s returnees, and government administrator for Kayah State’s Loikaw Township’s, Kyaw Moe, said officials are planning to enroll them in local schools.

“There are quite a few children among them and immigration officials issued birth certificates for them straightaway. The education department is also working to enroll these children in local schools,” said Kyaw Moe.

In a similar UNHCR-facilitated repatriation in October 2016, the first of its kind, more than 60 refugees from Thailand returned to Burma.

Over 100,000 refugees remain in Thailand, spread out across nine designated border camps.