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Local focus: Between a rock and a hard place: Burmese asylum-seekers in Thailand

May 11, 2005

The opinions expressed here may not represent the views of RSDWatch or Asylum Access, and are distributed here in the interests of public discussion.

By Lynn Yoshikawa, Jesuit Refugee Service, Thailand

The plight of Burmese refugees caught the media’s attention last month when the Thai government enforced a March 31 deadline for all UNHCR- recognized refugees to report to camps on the Thai-Burma border.  The Thai authorities said that any such refugees that did not report to immigration would forfeit their exit permits necessary to resettle to a third country and would be treated as illegal immigrants, subject to arrest and deportation.

This was the first concrete step towards controlling Burma’s opposition groups and highlighted the deteriorating rights of refugees in Thailand.

In Thailand, asylum seekers fleeing Burma’s brutal military regime are subject to limited and volatile protection under two mechanisms; through the border refugee camps or at one of the two UNHCR offices in Bangkok or Mae Sot.  Since January 2004 Burmese asylum seekers in Thailand have had no access to international protection as refugees.

Under extreme pressure by the Royal Thai Government (RTG), the UNHCR suddenly suspended registration and RSD of all Burmese asylum seekers with no prior notice to NGOs, refugees or asylum seekers.  One month later, the RTG and UNHCR clarified a policy to screen asylum seekers through a Thai-run admissions board for relocation to existing refugee camps, rather than letting them stay in urban areas. Unfortunately, little progress has been made.

Burmese refugees in Thailand have long had access to protection in the refugee camps, where over 140,000 live in nine sites along the border secured by Thai authorities.  These residents are nearly all ethnic minority villagers fleeing gross human rights violations by the Burma Army.  These refugees have sought asylum in Thailand for over 20 years, where the government provided protection under the limited criteria of “people fleeing fighting.”

In the camps they have been provided with food, housing, medical care and education by international NGOs, but movement beyond the barbed-wire fences is restricted.  These groups have been virtually excluded from resettlement opportunities and the only way out was to undergo UNHCR’s RSD process.

UNHCR’s own RSD process has been inconsistent in the protection of Burmese asylum seekers, with recognition rates skyrocketing from 20% to 80% in 2004 when the US government offered a generous resettlement package.  Prior to 2004 the UNHCR required a high burden of proof and asylum seekers had to risk arrest and refoulement to simply register at the two urban offices allowed to accept individual claims.

These measures kept the caseload relatively manageable until the May 2003 attack on  and arrest of Burma’s elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi and the beginning of ceasefire talks with the Karen National Union, the largest armed struggle force, which sent hundreds of democracy activists operating from their territory to Thailand.

Given the two protection mechanisms, it would be reasonable to mainstream the protection of refugees in Thailand under one system to provide equal protection for all refugees.   Although UNHCR’s RSD procedures were resource intensive, lacked legal transparency and prone to misinformation and rumors, the RTG and UNHCR must be prepared to address the complex security needs of urban refugees within the camp system.

Some urban refugees were previous camp residents who experienced secondary persecution by various political and ethnic groups living in the camp.  In the March relocation of urban refugees to border camps, these issues were largely ignored. Several families have already left the camp because of insecurity.  In April, relocated urban refugees reported verbal and physical abuse and shots fired by intoxicated Thai soldiers.  These incidents have increased fears and resistance among asylum seekers whose only hope for protection lies in the camps.

In handing over the RSD process to the Thai government, UNHCR needs to uphold its protection mandate and ensure that the screening process is just, transparent and will not be compromised by the real politik between Burma and Thailand.  Mistrust of Thai authorities runs deep and may jeopardize the entire screening process if asylum seekers fear telling the truth.  Rumors have long circulated that the authorities have knowingly handed over pro-democracy activists to Burma and that Thai security forces allowed cross-border attacks on refugee camps.

The Thai government’s previous attempt to open screening boards was in 1999 with the UNHCR acting as an observer with no official role to appeal.  The decisions were inconsistent between provinces and rejections were sometimes handed down on entire groups, leading to the boards being dismantled and the rejected asylum seekers staying on in the camps illegally.

As of May 2005 there are over 4,000 applications in limbo, waiting for the implementation of a status determination mechanism.  Meanwhile, as a non-signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, asylum seekers and refugees do not have the legal right to stay on Thai soil, leaving them vulnerable to arrest and refoulement  with no guarantee that the UNHCR can negotiate their release.

At the mercy of extremely volatile policies, Burma’s asylum seekers have no choice between the lesser of two weak refugee protection mechanisms and are likely to be pushed where both the Thai and Burmese want them: lost and disenfranchised in the illegal migrant worker population where they can fuel both cross-border economies.

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