Thailand: no safe refuge
In 2009, Burma's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) demanded that ethnic ceasefire groups turn over their weapons and integrate into the military forces (Tatmadaw) as a Border Guard Force under its control. The latest outbreak of fighting began when a Democratic Karen Buddhist Army faction, unhappy with the lack of financial incentives offered by the border guard deal, launched an offensive against SPDC troops in the border towns of Myawaddy and Three Pagodas Pass on November 7th, 2010.
The offensive forced approximately 22,000 people to flee to Thailand. While local authorities, UNHCR, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Thai citizens quickly mobilized to provide assistance in the first two days, the Thai army ordered the refugees to return as soon as open hostilities ceased in the towns. When fighting shifted to rural districts, an additional 10,000 people were displaced into Thailand. Some went to the few official refugee sites managed by the Thai army, where NGOs and UNHCR were permitted to provide assistance during specified hours. However, the Thai army would only permit refugees to stay during periods of active fighting and then forced them back across the border within hours of gunshots or mortar fire ending. Some refugees told Refugees International (RI) that they had been forced to return up to five times and one woman who had given birth during the fighting said she had been pushed back twice.
The last official site closed in February and refugees are now dispersed along both sides of the river border and in Thai villages. Community-based organizations, which have no legal status to operate in Thailand, are now the only channel for reaching the refugees in unofficial sites. NGOs are barred from visiting sites and have been accused by Thai authorities of creating pull factors for refugees. UNHCR and NGOs fear that their visits would attract the attention of the Thai army, who would then force back the refugees. In one case, Thai soldiers set fire to refugees' shelters and belongings to prevent their return to Thailand.