HRN expresses concern over recent situation of the repatriation of Burmese refugees

Burma (Myanmar)

HRN expresses concern over recent situation of the repatriation of Burmese refugees

1. In Burma (Myanmar), progress of democratization and a series of cease-fire agreements with ethnic groups have been reported. Consequently, repatriation of refugees who have been forced to shelter for long periods at the border has been attracting increasing media attention. For example, recent reports indicate that the Thai government would close the refugee camps and return the refugees in the near future. However, the cease-fire agreement with ethnic minorities who have been the subject of persecution, remains unstable and issues such as land mine removal and the human rights situation in ethnic minority areas have not improved. 

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

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

2. In August 2012, the Karen women in the Unpiem Mai refugee camp at the Thai 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 government forces and the Karen armed groups, conflicts still continue in many areas and government forces are occupying our land. We know that Burmese troops have killed and raped women again and again. Is there any guarantee that such a 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 as a result of anti-personnel landmines, have not subsided.

In particular, ethnic minorities have been subjected to serious human rights violations including murder, imprisonment, forced labor, torture and other serious acts of violence carried out by the military. Ethnic minority women have also fallen victim serious violence such as rape and other acts of sexual violence perpetrated by the military.

Since human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Burma are still being reported, it is difficult to say that human rights violations and persecution against ethnic minorities have been eliminated. Without the improvement of the human rights situation and a true end of the conflict, the return program of refugees should not be promoted.

It is critical to adhere to a principle of voluntary refugee repatriation, and it is unacceptable to force refugees to return in light of 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 “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. A representative of refugees should be included in the discussion making process for the repatriation.”

Many refugees subsisted on agriculture, and many of them wish to return to their original homes before taking refuge, in order to restart practice of agriculture to earn a living. These wishes should be respected as much as possible.

Refugee representatives from each ethnic group should be fully included in every decision making process in order to ensure their consultation on whether they wish to return or not, the timing of return, and place of 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, since fleeing from oppression against Muslims by the government prior to the SPDC regime. There are a number of people who have been taking shelter for a long time and thus will face difficulties becoming self-reliant at the resettlement location or in the period after return.

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

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

In the paper, the KCBOs appeal that “every refugee should have a free choice regarding whether or not to return.” Furthermore, it sets out a number of preconditions for the refugees’ return which include the following:
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 solid, 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, and disabled people, must receive special care.

The KWO also expresses its position on the return of refugees. 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 one of dignity and respect for 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 a nationwide ceasefire and end of all attacks on people from ethnic groups;
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, and 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 on them for the creation of 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 this situation as early as possible.

6. HRN requests both the Thai and Burmese governments to design a policy of repatriation which respects human rights, voluntariness and dignity in return of the refugees who have been forced to take shelter due to oppression in their home country and include them in the decision making process. In order to achieve this, both governments are required to support the inclusion of refugees in the decision-making process.

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