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The first, voluntary repatriation of 68 Burmese refugees from camps along the Thai-Burmese border began on Tuesday with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR calling the movement a “milestone” while underscoring it would not lead to an exodus.
The return of the refugees is the first to receive endorsement from the Thai and Burmese governments, the UNHCR said.
For tens of thousands of refugees living in a total of nine camps along Thailand’s border with Burma a return home has been a dream made impossible because of political and economic uncertainty in Burma.
That has somewhat changed since a civilian government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, took power earlier this year.
The return began on Tuesday with one family leaving a camp in the western province of Ratchaburi. Dozens more from Nu Po Camp in Thailand’s western Tak Province will follow on Wednesday, said Iain Hall, UNHCR’s senior field coordinator.
“This particular movement is a milestone,” Hall told Reuters by telephone from the border town of Mae Sot, which is located some 490 km (304 miles) from the Thai capital Bangkok.
“But it won’t be the start of a large exodus,” he said.
“The Myanmar [Burmese] government came over and issued certificates of identification saying these people are their citizens,” said Hall, adding that those who chose to return had based their decision on information given by their families in Burma who said that it was safe to return.
There are around 103,000 refugees and internally displaced people living in the nine camps along the border.
Some residents have been living in the camps for 30 years. Nearly 80 percent are ethnic Karen from eastern Burma who fled armed conflict and often persecution at the hands of the Burmese army during decades of military rule.
Ko Ko Naing, a senior official from Burma’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlements said the country was ready to receive the returnees.
“These people want to return to Myanmar of their own volition,” he told Reuters.
Successive Thai governments have raised the possibility of shutting down the camps permanently. Hall said now was not the time.
“We’re not promoting return and we’ve made that clear with both governments,” said Hall.
“We don’t yet believe it is the time to return but of course these people have the right to return if they want to.”
Burma has seen sporadic violence in recent weeks including in Muslim-majority Arakan State between government forces and what officials say are fighters inspired by Islamists.