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Conditions not right in Myanmar for Burmese refugees in Thailand to return home - UNHCR

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 23 Jul 2014 09:59 GMT
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A Burmese refugee watches from her bamboo-and-leaf thatch house as Thai authorities conduct a census at Mae La refugee camp, near the Thailand-Myanmar border in Mae Sot district, Tak province, on July 21, 2014. Thai authorities have started conducting the census at Mae La on refugees who fled neighbouring Myanmar, in a bid to crackdown on illegal workers, but raising fears among the refugees of an imminent repatriation to Myanmar. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
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BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Conditions in Myanmar are not yet right for refugees living in camps near the border to return home, the U.N. said on Wednesday as concerns mount after the Thai military government pledged to repatriate them.

“There’s been a lot of positive developments (in Myanmar) in the last two and a half years or so but… we don’t feel that the conditions are fully in place for organised refugee return,” Vivian Tan, Bangkok-based spokesperson for UNHCR, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Challenges include the absence of a permanent ceasefire in eastern Myanmar, land mines and unmarked minefields, and a lack of infrastructure, basic services and jobs, she said.

“All of this affects the sustainability and safety of any refugee return.”

After the Thai military on Monday launched a refugee headcount in Mae La – the largest of nine camps along the border – refugees told Thomson Reuters Foundation that they fear being forcibly returned to Myanmar.

However, the Thai junta has reassured aid groups, including UNHCR, that the return would be voluntary and no timeframe has been set.

“We spoke to the Thai government, and they clarified that the policy remains the same (as before), that any returns to Myanmar must be voluntary, must be dignified and safe,” Tan said.

“(The refugees) fled a terrible situation back home and of course they have trust issues and they’re suspicious of the different actors involved,” she said.

“We as humanitarian actors have to try our best to try and provide whatever information we can in an objective way. I think that’s the best way we can try manage their anxiety.”

There are approximately 120,000 Burmese refugees living in Thailand. The first waves poured across the border three decades ago after the Burmese military launched attacks against ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Myanmar near the Thai border.

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

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