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A Thai Army spokesman denied reports on Monday regarding the Thai military’s intentions to repatriate within a year roughly 130,000 Burmese refugees living in border camps.
According to a 14 July report in the Bangkok Post, an unnamed source from the Thai Royal Army’s 9th Infantry Division said that the military, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and rights group Mae Fah Luang Foundation have conducted interviews with the roughly 130,000 Burmese refugees living in Thailand’s nine border camps to find out who wishes to return, resettle in another country, and remain in Thailand. The unnamed source also said that the repatriation process would take at least a year.
Col. Weerachon Sukondhadpatipak, a spokesman for the Thai Army, told DVB that the repatriation is not something that will happen immediately as the government is still sorting out the details.
“I don’t think this [repatriation] will happen at this moment. It is an issue we need to solve, but it doesn’t mean we are sending the Burmese people back to Myanmar,” Weerachon said. “It is a long process that needs to be discussed with all concerned parties.”
“It would be difficult [to send all the refugees back] within one year,” he added.
Iain Hall, senior coordinator for UNHCR, said the two governments have been discussing the repatriation of the refugees for years, but there is no set time frame yet for when this will happen.
“People may share a view, but there is no plan, there is no document, there is no start date or no end date for voluntary repatriation – although there is all good intent, which is the legal and natural intention towards helping refugees secure their durable solutions, including for the government of Myanmar to welcome home its citizens one day when the time is right,” Hall said by email. “But the time is not [right] yet for promoting voluntary return.”
Hall added that the refugees should have the choice to return to their home states if they wish to do so, but many remain very “cautious”, as the Burmese government has not concluded peace negotiations with the armed ethnic groups.
“If refugees don’t have too much confidence in the peace process, then that must be fully understood by everyone involved,” he said.
“The Royal Thai Government has consistently reassured us that any refugee returns to Myanmar must be voluntary and conducted in safety and dignity. UNHCR is not aware of any changes in this government policy, or of any government time frame to repatriate refugees,” Hall reiterated.
Naw Baw Nyaw, a refugee staying in the Umpiem Mai camp – which borders Karen State – said that although everyone wishes to return home to Karen State, the security situation remains precarious.
“It is not at all safe for us to go. There have been no developments with the ceasefire, and we don’t know how genuine it would be,” she said. “Moreover, there has been no progress in the talks taking place between the armed groups and the government.”
Naw Blooming Night Zan, the second secretary for the Karen Refugee Committee, said that no systematic procedures are in place to collect data on the camps’ populations, and that both governments are unlikely to advance on repatriation until that process has been completed.
“Even if they plan to repatriate the refugees, I don’t think they would do it blindly,” she said. “We believe they will consider the current situation and on meeting international standards.”
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