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Refugee policy abusive and 'unfair': HRW

Foreign Ministry says country is in 'no rush' to repatriate Myanmar refugees

  • Stephen Finch, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • September 13, 2012
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Human Rights Watch today urged the Thai government to overhaul what it said were punitive policies against the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the country, many of them from Myanmar.

In a new report citing extortion, arrests, extended periods of detention and forced deportations among other abuses it blamed on Thai authorities, the New York-based rights group called on the government to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and to treat refugees humanely.

“Thailand presents Burmese refugees with the unfair choice of stagnating for years in remote refugee camps or living and working outside the camps without protection from arrest and deportation,” said Bill Frelick, the author of the report Ad hoc and Inadequate and director of HRW’s refugee program.

About 56,000 refugees remain unregistered in nine refugee camps on Thailand’s northwestern border with Myanmar after the government stopped registering new refugees in mid-2006, he said, meaning they were effectively illegal immigrants and prone to deportation and arrest at any time.

The total population of refugees in Thai camps is thought to be about 140,000 people.

Many more Burmese, perhaps more than two million, live and work in Thailand, some with the necessary paperwork but many illegally.

HRW noted that Rohingyas, a Muslim group from western Myanmar the UN considers among the most persecuted minority in the world, remain particularly vulnerable, as they are not recognized by Thailand.

One Rohingya asylum-seeker said he tried to register with the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Bangkok and was told he would have to travel to Mae Sot on the border with Myanmar only to be told by the UNHCR office there to head back to Bangkok in what turned out to be “a wild goose chase,” said Frelick.

The Rohingya man told an HRW press conference in Bangkok today he had still not been able to register as a refugee.

“They [UNHCR] don’t help us,” he said. “I have lost hope.”

HRW singled out UNHCR for criticism over what Frelick said was a slow and bureaucratic way of working with refugees in Thailand, which he acknowledged was a restrictive environment in which to work.

“It could have been more balanced, it could have reflected some of our successes,” said UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan, which included helping, registering and repatriating refugees from a host of different countries.

UNHCR has been working behind the scenes to encourage Thailand to stop detaining refugees in urban areas and there had been fewer arrests in the past year, she said.

Similarly, UNHCR has for years quietly encouraged the Thai government to draw up a legal framework to deal with refugees, but here there had been no progress, added Tan.

Vijavat Isarabhakdi, director-general of the Department of International Organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which deals with aid agencies, said Thailand tried to meet international standards at its immigration detention centers.

In a written response yesterday to a list of concerns by HRW, he said Thailand would not push Myanmar refugees to return home, despite recent improvements in the country amid ongoing reforms.

“While we are eager to see practical and durable solutions found [for Myanmar refugees] … Thailand is in no hurry to rush this matter,” said Vijavat.

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