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Statement: HRN Expresses Concern Over Recent Situation of the Repatriation of Burmese Refugees

Burma (Myanmar)

HRN expresses concern over recent situation of the Repatriation of BurmeseRefugees

1   In Burma (Myanmar), progress of democratization and a series of cease-fire agreements with ethnic groups have been reported. Given the situation, the repatriation of refugees who have been forced to take shelter for a long time at the border has been attracting more and more attention. For example, it was reported that the Thai government would close the refugee camps and return the refugees soon.

However, the cease-fire agreement with the ethnic minorities who have been the subject of persecution remains unstable and the issues such as land mine removal or the human rights situation in ethnic minority areas have  not improved.

Human Rights Now (HRN), the international human rights NGO based in Tokyo, has visited the refugee camps in a border area between Thailand and Burma since 2008, and conducted investigations on the situation of refugees.

In August 2012, HRN carried out an investigation mission of the refugees around Mae Sot and listened to the concern over repatriation among the refugees. Based on the findings, HRN expresses concern about the policy facilitating repatriation without due consideration.

2 In August 2012, the Karen women in the Unpiem Mai refugee camp in Thailand-Burma border expressed their strong anxiety about the ongoing discussion of refugee return to the HRN investigation team.

"I heard that, despite the ceasefire between the government forces and the Karen armed groups, conflicts are still continuing in many areas and the government forces are occupying our land. We know that Burmese troops have killed and raped women over and over. Is there any guarantee that such tragedy will not be repeated after the return?"

"The ceasefire agreement has just been concluded, and landmines are still buried in many areas. We cannot return without fear since we do not know where the mines are buried."

The causes of ethnic minorities' refuge, such as armed conflict, human rights abuses, and sacrifice by anti-personnel landmines, have not yet been diminishing.

In particular, ethnic minorities have been subjected to  serious human rights violations such as murder, impressment, forced labor, torture and other serious violence by the military. Rape and other sexual violence by the military against ethnic minority women have been very serious.

Since human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Burma are still reported, it is hard to say that human rights violations and persecution against ethnic minorities are eliminated. 
the improvement of the human rights situation and the true end of the conflict, the return program of refugees should not be promoted.

It is critical to adhere to the principle of voluntariness of refugee repatriation, and it is unallowable to force refugees to return with existing concerns over human rights violations.

3  HRN also finds that the ongoing process of refugee repatriation is problematic. A Karen man, camp leader in the Mae La refugee camp, told the HRN investigation team that "I heard that the government of Thailand and Burma had a meeting and already decided the place for refugee return without asking our opinion."  "It is not permissible that such an important decision was made without any consultation to the refugees, the party with compelling interest. The representative of refugees should be included in the discussion making process of the repatriation."

Many refugees subsisted on agriculture, and most of them wish to return to the original place before the refuge, so they can restart agriculture to earn their living. These wishes should be respected as much as possible.

Refugee representatives from each ethnic group should be included in the every decision-making process in order to fully consult  whether or not to return, when to return, and where to return. Regarding the implementation of these plans, every individual opinion should be respected.

Furthermore, there are many reasons why people have become refugees. Some have been living as refugees for more than 30 years after fleeing from oppression against Muslims by the government prior to the SPDC regime. There is certain number of people who have been taking shelter for a long time and thus difficult to become self-reliant at the resettlement place or after return.

Special programs for those who  have difficulty upon returning should be established.  

4  The Karen Community Based Organizations (KCBOs) and Karen Women Organization (KWO) clearly express their concerns and promote their proposal respectively in this regard.
The KCBOs released a position paper on September 11, 2012.

In the paper, the KCBOs appeals that "every refugee should have a free choice regarding whether or not to return." Furthermore, it sets out a number of pre-conditions for the refugees' return which includes:
A political settlement must be in place between the ethnic armed groups and the Burmese government;
Land-mine clearance must be completed in areas where refugees are returning...;
Healthcare and education [...] must be available in the places of return;
  In addition, the KCBOs also show the required process that must be taken for the refugees' return:
Refugees must individually decide for themselves whether or not and when to return to Burma or to remain in the areas where they have currently taken refuge;
A complete and up to date assessment of the locations where refugees will be returning must be done by a local monitoring team;
Refugees must be able to return in groups with their organizations, structure and with a good, detailed plan;
During their return, vulnerable people such as pregnant women, mothers with newborn babies, sick people including the chronically ill, people with HIV and TB, the elderly, disabled people, must receive special care;

The KWO also expresses its position for the refugee return. The Organization's position includes:

Refugee return should be voluntary and must be with the full consent of refugees. They should not be forced to return;
The return must be full of dignity and respect of refugees;
Military camps must withdraw first [...] before [the refugees] go home;
Land mines must be removed first;
There must be assessments of villages or places where refugees want to return to for access to education, health and livelihoods;
Human rights violations must stop. Violations such as sexual abuse, forced labor, extortion, killing, destroying of [the refugees'] farms and orchards, must stop before [the refugees] will [...] go back;

There must be nationwide ceasefire and end of all attacks of any ethnic people;;
IDP's should be given priority to return and reintegrated before refugees return;
During their return, vulnerable people such as pregnant women, mothers with new born babies, sick people, the elderly, disabled people, must receive special care;
・ Certificates in camps that are related to education, health, livelihoods and others must be recognized;

These requests and recommendations are all legitimate, and thus HRN requests both Thailand and Burma's government to reflect them for the repatriation program.

HRN also requests both Thailand and Burma's government to adhere to the basic principle of repatriation repeatedly expressed by UNHCR.

Since Thailand is not a state party of the Convention, the government has not yet officially recognized Burmese refugees as "refugees" and that makes the status of refugees more vulnerable. HRN requests the Thai government to resolve such situations as a whole soon. 

5  HRN requests both Thailand and Burma's  government to design the policy of repatriation which respects human rights, voluntariness and dignity in return of the refugees who have been forced to take shelter due to the home country's oppression and includes them in the decision making process.     In order that, both of the governments are required to support that the refugees would be included in the decision-making process.

HRN also requests the international community to continue its strong support for the refugees in the border area. Also, it requests the international community to monitor the process of repatriation as a critical element of the process of democratization and human rights in Burma.