Refugees begin return to Myanmar 

Conflict with Karen nationalist armies has driven many citizens to flee across the Thai frontier. Source: YouTube

The voluntary repatriation of 68 Burmese refugees from camps along the Thai border has begun with the United Nations’ refugee organisation calling the movement a “milestone” in Myanmar’s history. It was the first time a return of refugees had received endorsement from the Bangkok and Nay Pyi Taw governments, the UNHCR announced.

There are tens of thousands of refugees in nine camps along the Thai side of the border after they fled the military dictatorship. Thailand has periodically raised the prospect of closing the camps.

This week one family left a camp in the border province of Ratchaburi and many more from Nupo Camp in Tak province were due to leave, said Iain Hall, the UNHCR’s coordinator in the western Thai border town of Mae Sot.

“This particular movement is a milestone. But it won’t be the start of a large exodus,” Hall said. “The Myanmar government came over and issued certificates of identification saying these people are their citizens,” he said, adding that refugees had received reassurances from their families in Myanmar that it was safe to return.

He was cautious about the situation in Myanmar, which is suffering from ongoing civil wars throughout many of its border regions.

“We’re not promoting return and we’ve made that clear with both governments,” said Hall. “We don’t yet believe it is the time to return but of course these people have the right to return if they want to.”

There are around 103,000 refugees in the nine border camps with some living in the camps for about 30 years. Nearly 80 per cent are ethnic Karen mostly from Myanmar’s Kayin State with Karenni, Burmese and Mon ethnicities also represented.

The refugee agency’s spokesperson William Spindler said: “UNHCR has been providing refugees with information on the conditions at their return destinations. Our staff have also been counselling people to ensure that returns are properly based on informed decisions. Repatriation transport is being coordinated … the WFP [World Food Programme] is providing cash assistance for three months of food support. Further reintegration assistance will be provided by the Myanmar authorities, UNHCR and other agencies on the ground.

“As the peace process continues in Myanmar, the hope is that this week’s returns will help grow interest in repatriation among other refugees.”

Ko Ko Naing from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in Nay Pyi Taw said Myanmar was prepared for their return.

“These people want to return to Myanmar of their own volition,” the official said.