18 Feb ‘We must be ready for the day refugees want to go home’

Written by Portia Larlee Published in Interviews Read 2670 times

Lain Hall, UNHCR senior field coordinator, Mae Sot, Thailand

Mae La camp. Photo: EPA/NARONG SANGNAK
Mae La camp. Photo: EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Myanmar refugees in Thailand faced a turbulent year in 2014. Big funding cuts to humanitarian organisations reduced food and other necessities available to those living in camps. In late May, after the Thai military seized power in a coup, long-standing restrictions on movement outside the camps were enforced and a curfew was briefly introduced. Apprehension among refugees was exacerbated when Thai authorities conducted a head-count in some camps in July. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but has provided shelter and protection for more than 1.3 million refugees since 1975, including about 120,000 refugees in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, most of whom are Karen. Iain Hall, senior coordinator for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, spoke with Mizzima’s Portia Larlee in a wide-ranging interview on the future of the refugees.

What does the future hold for Myanmar refugees in Thai camps?

Resettlement, voluntary return or local integration are the traditional “durable solutions” that may become available to refugees, but all these solutions are influenced by many factors that depend on the context of both the country of origin and the country of asylum. In the context of Thailand local integration has not been an option. However, at the time when things in Myanmar were not looking good for a peaceful resolution and refugees were languishing in the camps for many years, then UNHCR with the agreement of the Thai government and with the support of the international community was able to offer resettlement as an option for registered refugees. Since the signing of a number of ceasefires between the government of Myanmar and non-state actors in 2012, and with changes taking place in social, political and the security contexts, voluntary repatriation has been emerging as a possibility for those that long to return home to restart their lives in the towns and villages and enjoy all their rights as citizens of their country.

Of the 120,000 refugees in the nine camps along the Thai border, about 74,000 are registered with the UNHCR. What is the distinction between registered and unregistered refugees?

The main distinction is that the registered refugees have been formally recognised by the Thai government as displaced persons fleeing fighting or political persecution in Myanmar. As such, resettlement may be available to them if they seek it. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of unregistered refugees have crossed the border into Thailand since 2006 and they have been afforded the same protection, humanitarian assistance and services in the camps as the registered refugees, with the exception of resettlement.

The last time the Thai government, together with the UNHCR, registered refugees was in 2005. There has been no further registration since that time, except for individual cases to ensure family unity or to help address critical protection cases or serious medical cases.

Today, in some camps, about half of the refugee population are unregistered, but the [Thai] government remains clear that it is not ready to register them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t offering humanitarian support and they have not “closed the gates” to the camps and the international community has been able to provide assistance including food, shelter, education and healthcare. The nine temporary shelters therefore
remain available to refugees that are fleeing an armed conflict in their villages or to individuals facing political persecution.

Why has the Thai government declined to register refugees who arrived after 2005?

One reason might be because it hasn’t witnessed the scope and level of armed conflict in the ethnic areas as was the case prior to 2005 that obliged people to flee for safety across the border. But registration should not be confused with protection, and the Thai government has, since 2006, allowed unregistered refugees to be provided protection in the nine camps along the border.

How many refugees were resettled to third countries last year?

It must be remembered that resettlement is not a right of a registered refugee, but rather because the protracted nature of their displacement and a family or individual base assessment indicates that resettlement would be a viable and sustainable solution. Resettlement from Thailand has seen more than 92,000 refugees find their solution in third countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Sweden and elsewhere.

During 2014 more than 6,000 refugees were resettled and there is a similar number of refugees in the pipeline to resettle this year.

What is the situation of the thousands of registered refugees?

Just over 74,000 registered refugees remain in the camps in Thailand and some of them are in the process of applying for resettlement. The majority of them have not approached UNHCR for resettlement and we may generally assume that after so many years opportunity to resettle to a third country that they have a deep-rooted desire to return home when the situation is safe and get back to life in Myanmar.

A degree of anxiety has spread through the nine camps ahead of a refugee “verification” process due to take place from February 26 to April 10. Why is it necessary?

UNHCR has long advocated the Thai government to conduct a recount of the refugees that reside in the temporary shelters. There are existing Ministry of Interior-UNHCR databases on registered refugees and a separate database related to food and shelter assistance; but now the Royal Thai Government would now like to know more precisely the total number of both registered and unregistered refugees in the camps today. In December 2014 UNHCR was requested to undertake a joint verification exercise with the Ministry of the Interior.

We must finish the process by Songkran [the traditional Thai new year, in April] so it’s a huge challenge as we will be verifying up to 120,000 people. The verification won’t change the status of anybody. Registered refugees will not be de-registered and unregistered persons will not be registered.

What will the verification process entail?

UNHCR is using biometrics to help identify refugees and prevent any fraudulent claims. This includes an iris scan, finger print and a facial photograph. In this way after the verification we can easily identify someone who has been verified and it will help in providing humanitarian assistance and support durable solutions. Verified refugees will receive a card with a micro-chip, but it has no name or photograph. This e-card does not provide any new status or additional rights and it is not an ID card. But it will allow MOI and UNHCR to quickly and easily identify a verified refugee as they continue their lives in the camps, and it will also support UNHCR to assist families and individuals in securing their durable solutions, including those that may eventually decide to voluntarily return home.

Despite Thai government restrictions on leaving the camps, many refugees attend school or have jobs. How will this verification process affect them?

There are long-standing policy rules and regulations in the camps. A refugee requires permission to leave the camp for whatever reason, and the Thai government regulations state that refugees are not permitted to seek employment outside of the camps. We assume that any refugees that are outside of the camps have the permission to do so, including for example, some students that study in the higher education institutions. Refugees outside of the camps must return to be verified as the joint MOI-UNHCR exercise is mandatory and will benefit all those refugees that participate.

After Thai military seized power on May 22 last year, daily life changed for many refugees. security at the camps was tightened and curfews were introduced. Have these restrictions since been relaxed?

UNHCR has not heard about curfews in the camps, except in isolated cases in the early days of the change in 2014 when the military coup took place. Over the past eight months things have settled in the camps. However, the situation since 22 May 2014 has definitely changed and the Thai government policy is being rigorously applied by the camp authorities.

The Border consortium, a group of 10 non-government organisations that provides sustenance and shelter to refugees, had its funding cut significantly last year. How has that affected the refugee community?

Funding cuts and reduction in services have been continuous over the past years. It was not a sudden reduction, but it added to anxiety of the refugees. The reduction in donor support has made all of the humanitarian agencies reassess the most effective use of every donor dollar that they receive. For example, TBC reviewed the food distribution mechanism and reassessed those that maybe don’t need the same amount of rations, in kilograms, and some who don’t need it at all. The most vulnerable have not been impacted. This is their [TBC’s] Community Managed Targeting program that helped ensure a minimum level of food for the refugees that most need it; but of course it was not an easy program to implement
particularly when they started the process in 2013.

Is UNHCR ready to promote refugee return?

As previously mentioned, UNHCR is not yet ready to promote the voluntary return of refugee from Thailand as some conditions to support a sustainable return home in the areas that refugees would like to go, need attention. The situation has been improving and quite a number of refugees in the past few years have been able to return home without the support of the humanitarian community.

Refugees fled violent conflict that took place in and around their villages in Myanmar. Those were very difficult and often traumatic times. Since 2012 we have witnessed major ceasefires, but these ceasefires are not yet permanent. Peace is not yet signed between the Myanmar government and the armed groups in the areas where the refugees came from. Although there is a genuine desire for an end to the fighting, the biggest concern of the refugees’ is to have safety and security back in their towns and villages of return.

In the end, the most important thing is for refugees themselves to “vote with their feet” and make their own decisions about return. Sometimes refugees just decide to go, even if we may feel that the situation is not what we might assess as conducive to return; but it is their right to return and it must be respected by everyone.

How many refugees returned to Myanmar in 2014?

According to the camp committees just under 4,000 refugees had indicated that they had gone home last year. Not on “go and see” visits, but to return home and move forward with their lives because they have security in those areas of return. We call this spontaneous refugee returns. These refugees may already have land, property, and a source of income so they have their coping mechanisms without the need of support from the international community.

By their nature, spontaneous returns are difficult to monitor and refugees may not inform UNHCR or others that they have gone home. There can be many reasons for this and they may simply be “testing” the situation with one foot back home and one foot still in the refugee camp. It is a natural part of the refugees’ coping mechanism and a phenomenon that’s been taking place for the past few years.

What sort of assistance would be available to refugees returning to Myanmar?

Depending if refugees return before or during a promoted and organised voluntary repatriation the assistance will be appropriately adjusted. For organised repatriation it may include transport for the most vulnerable or a small cash grant for those that can organise their own transport. UNHCR may offer an additional cash grant to help them restart their lives as they will need to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods. UNHCR will continue its ongoing community-based projects in the villages where refugees and internally displaced persons have returned to.

What is the Myanmar government’s role in receiving returnees?

For UNHCR to promote return the country of origin must be willing to receive refugees home, and to that extent UNHCR must also discuss with the Myanmar government its readiness for voluntary returns. The sudden return of a large number of refugees will be a challenge for everyone involved, not least for the government as it has the primary responsibility to welcome home its citizens and ensure their security and welfare. So they may need the support of UNHCR, humanitarian agencies and the donor community to assist in making voluntary returns a successful and sustainable process.

What if refugees are returning to areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union?

Even if refugees are returning to the so-called ethnic “controlled areas” the government will want to ensure that health, education and other normal services are accessible to the community. That’s quite a challenge for any government. The refugee numbers are not huge, but it is a diverse population that come from many quite inaccessible locations in the southeast of the country. The ethnic groups must also do their part and continue with their programs to support local communities and to allow humanitarian and development actors to access the areas of refugee and IDP return. The overall quality of humanitarian and development access needs to improve, although it is getting better. It is still not so easy for UNHCR and humanitarians agencies to go to parts of the southeast.

The results of an UNHCR survey conducted by the Mae Fah Luang foundation, a Thai non-profit organisation and which included a question about how refugees perceive their future, were released in September. Describe the findings.

From the refugee survey data we have very good information and indicators about refugees’ future intentions including those that desire one day to go back to their areas of origin and beyond. We also have a much better understanding of the many issues related to resettlement to third countries and the desire of some refugees to remain in Thailand. The refugee survey will help everyone that wants to help the refugees secure a better future and UNHCR has made the data available to the NGOs and others than can use it in support of their activities to assist the refugees.

There are some “model village” developments appearing on the Myanmar side of the border. Are they for refugees?

We’ve been informed that these places we’re seeing are not for refugees. We understand they may be for ex-combatants or war veterans. Clearly these new settlements are not designed for refugee returns. UNHCR’s general approach is to “follow the refugee return” rather than to first build a model village and then say to refugees “hey, we’ve built the model, now come and live in it.” That approach doesn’t work. UNHCR tends to work in and with the existing communities where refugees or IDPs have already returned to or where there are very clear indicators that refugees strongly desire and will return to certain areas.

What are the greatest challenges and successes that UNHCR faces protecting refugees from Myanmar in Thailand?

Any refugee situation is always a challenge and can never be described as a success. It is a failure of the parties to the conflict that results in people having to run for their lives and lose their homes and villages and sometimes family members. Having refugees in a country for 30 years, that’s not a success either, but it’s not in the context of the situation in the country of asylum where those issues must be resolved.

Considering durable solutions, I think we can say that resettlement was the best solution for many, and I think it’s been successful in quite historical proportions; more than 92,000 refugees have been resettled. Regarding return, we don’t know yet. We must not pressurise refugees to return, but at the same time we must also be ready for the day that refugees want to go home and therefore we must do our joint planning with them and with the two governments and the humanitarian community. The dynamics can change quickly and we need to be ready.

This Article first appeared in the February 12, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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