Burmese refugees are scrambling to meet the March 31 deadline set by Thai authorities to relocate to refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.
Those who have been granted Persons of Concern, or POC, status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, such as former political activists, will be deemed illegal immigrants by Thailand if they do not move out of urban areas and into the camps by tomorrow.
An immigrant in Bangkok estimated that at least 3000 POCs are living in the Thai capital, with an additional 900 POCs in the border town of Mae Sot.
“It can’t be helped, we must move to the camps,” said Ko Myo, a former political prisoner now registered as a POC and living in Chiang Mai. “But the camps are like prisons. We came to Thailand to avoid suffering, but they are now forcing us into these prisons. It’s really senseless.” Ko Myo will report to a special detention center in Bangkok later today.
As illegal immigrants, Burmese refugees may be subject to arrest, detention and deportation. Thailand will also refuse to grant them exit clearance to resettle in third countries, even if those countries have already accepted their asylum applications.
The United States-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday that “the forced relocation of Burmese refugees to the camps is a clear attempt to improve relations with the military junta in Rangoon.”
Ko Myo concurs, claiming that the move is an attempt to destroy the anti-junta opposition groups based in Thailand. “The Thai government and the Burmese government want to do business with each other. Now all political dissidents must first register as refugees. It [the Thai government] no longer wants opposition movements on Thai soil.”
At the refugee camps located in rural areas, residents are not allowed to use mobile phones or the internet. This will effectively cut them off from the outside world. Health and sanitation conditions in the nine border camps are also a cause for concern. Electricity as well as adequate water and housing are said by human rights groups to be lacking.
According to Elizabeth Kirton, head of the UNHCR field office in Mae Sot, refugees have been sent to the camps every day since Saturday. Three of the nine border refugee camps are receiving the new refugees.
March 30, 2005 By Khun Sam and Elissa Thet