Monday, 21 July 2008

Thailand Refugee Policy Gets Mixed Reviews

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — Thailand’s treatment of refugees has come under scrutiny for confining some refugees in camps for years and allegedly forcing others back home where they risk persecution.

A report issued by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) in June ranked Thailand as one of the 10 worst places for refugees.

The report criticized Thailand’s refusal to recognize most Burmese refugees in its territories and for confining 140,000 refugees to camps along the Thai-Burmese border and refusing them the right to work.

The report also cited Thailand’s treatment of Lao Hmong asylum-seekers, some 8,000 of whom have been living in the Huai Nam Khao camp in Petchabun Province since 2004, and the forced return of such refugees who fear persecution once home.

The Hmong claim they fled harassment and persecution in their homeland because of ties to the CIA-backed force that fought the communists in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the first week of July, the Thai military returned more than 800 Hmong from the Huai Nam Khao camp to Laos.

The returns followed a protest of 5,000 Hmong, who broke down a camp fence on June 20 and began marching to Bangkok to raise awareness about their plight and voice concern over a bilateral agreement reached by the Thai and Lao governments to send them back to Laos.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about the incident on its Web site on June 30, refuting allegations that the Hmong had been forcibly repatriated.

“These persons expressed the wish to return to Laos of their own accord after negotiations with the Thai officials proved that their demands could not be met,” the statement read. “The Thai side thereafter facilitated their return in a dignified and humane manner.”

The statement claimed authorities had established a screening process for the Hmong, ostensibly to identify all individuals and family members.

But on June 23, the UN’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), wrote to the Thai government to express its concern over the return of the Lao Hmong.

The UNHCR has never been given access by the Thai government to the Lao refugees at the Huai Nam Khao camp.

“We would like to help the Thai authorities in the screening process to determine if any of the Hmong refugees are eligible for refugee status, and able to stay in Thailand,” UNHCR senior regional public information officer, Kitty McKinsey, told IRIN in Bangkok. “If an outside agency were allowed access, it could add transparency to the whole process.”

Since 2005, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been the only group allowed to work with the Hmong inside the Huai Nam Khao camp.

“The level of anxiety is extremely high [among the Hmong],” Gilles Isard, MSF head of mission in Thailand, said, adding that many of the refugees feared they would be punished by the Thai army for having demonstrated.

“If the international community does not react firmly against this return, then this process of repatriation will continue without any external control or humanitarian assistance for the returnees,” he added.

Thailand has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a key legal document in defining a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states.

“In spite of having not signed the convention, they have been very hospitable to refugees,” McKinsey said. “Thailand has hosted 1.2 million refugees over the past 30 years, so that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

The UNHCR has a mandate to work with 140,000 refugees from Burma in nine camps along the Thai border.

According to McKinsey, the UNHCR would like to see more freedom of movement for refugees so they can move out of the camps to work and study.

Since early 2005, the UNHCR has been involved in the resettlement of more than 30,000 Burmese refugees from camps on the Thai-Burmese border to third countries.

“Although Thailand is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention and protocol, its humanitarian record in providing asylum to refugees is better than that of many countries that have acceded,” Sally Thompson, executive director of the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, told IRIN.

She added that the overriding policy of providing temporary shelter in enclosed camps was driven by national security concerns and the fear of an upsurge in refugee populations.

Despite difficult conditions, NGOs have a good working relationship with the Thai government and have maintained access to the camps to provide essential services, according to Thompson.

The Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) is a news service that forms part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But this report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

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