The headcount that began early on July 21 at Mae Hla – home to 43,000 people and the country’s largest refugee camp – came a week after the Thai junta said it planned to eventually send home an estimated 120,000 people living in nine refugee along the border with Myanmar.
“The National Council for Peace and Order (the ruling military body) is trying to control and check the number of migrant workers in Thailand… some of (the refugees) sneak out to work in the agricultural sector,” Colonel Terdsak Ngamsanong, commander of the 4th infantry regiment, said, noting that government and non-government agencies have varying figures. He said the headcount would be completed this month, but did not say when refugees would be sent back.
“So now we will try to count the number of people who have been affected by the conflict and separate them from the migrant workers. There will also be a benefit in the long-term because we will be able to use this data for repatriation.”
Provincial authorities said they would enforce Thai government rules forbidding refugees from leaving the camp. Many go out to work in nearby villages, risking arrest and extortion.
“If the refugees leave the camp area, they will be considered illegal migrants. We will process them according to the law by sending them to the police and they will be pushed back,” said Preeda Foongtrakulchai, a senior administrative official in Tha Song Yang district, where Mae La is located.
Many of the Myanmar refugees fled persecution and ethnic wars, as well as poverty, and have lived in the camps for up to nearly three decades with no legal means of earning an income.
Thailand’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 17 noting that “a possible return of these displaced persons has always been raised”, and the most recent discussion “was in general terms with no specific timeframe”.
However, as the Thai military, army rangers and refugee volunteers organised hundreds of families for the headcount on July 21, the refugees were uneasy.
Under steady rain, elderly couples with walking sticks and young families with babies wrapped in colourful fabrics sat on wet tarpaulin sheets, waiting for their house numbers to be called.
“We heard that they may be sending us back, but we don’t want to go back,” said a 61-year-old ethnic Karen man from eastern Myanmar, who gave his name as Saw.
“We have no family there, no jobs or land. There’s nothing left. What are we to do?” said the man, who has been living in this camp for almost 20 years and fled Myanmar because he had been a forced labourer for the military too many times.
Thailand stopped registering new refugees in 2007, and the United States – which has accepted more than 70,000 Myanmar refugees from Thailand ? ended its group resettlement program.
Now, as Myanmar garners praise for democratic reforms and financial support to the camps dwindles, there has been more talk of repatriation – stirring fear among refugees who say they will be persecuted if sent back to Myanmar.
They worry the headcount is part of a plan to close the camps.
As families are called forward, their household registration papers are to check that each family member is present. They then line up to have their pictures taken, each person holding a number, under a banner that says, “The survey of refugees from war in the Mae La temporary shelter, Zone A, 21 July 2014.”
The refugees say aid agencies have similar headcounts, but none include taking pictures, fuelling concern.
"Quite a few people - if I have to guess, about 500 people - lost hope and left over the weekend immediately after the military made their announcement,” said a refugee in Umpiem Mai, another Tak Province camp, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions. "We don't know what to do. People are worried because they don't know what's going to happen.”
(Mizzima acknowledges with thanks permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation to publish this report).