UN says it is encouraged by new Thai government priority to improve Myanmar camps
Recent sympathetic comments by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former military general whose work made him familiar with the plight of refugees, "encourage us to hope" that Thai government policy will soon change for the better, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis, told a press briefing in Geneva.
This potentially significant change in Thai policy would improve the lives of refugees, many of whom have lived in camps along the long Thai-Myanmar border for up to 20 years, most with few prospects of returning home anytime soon.
"These steps would be in line with accepted standards and would also meet the genuine needs of Thailand's growing economy for a bigger workforce," said Ms. Pagonis.
In a meeting last week with heads of UN agencies based in the Thai capital, Mr. Surayud said one of his administration's top priorities is improving standards in the nine refugee camps run by the Thai government.
"We were pleased that he named as his third priority [after national political reconciliation and solving Muslim discontent in the southern part of the country] improving the living conditions and standards in the refugee camps, which are run by the Thai government and are home to refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma," Ms. Pagonis added.
Most of the refugees are members of Myanmar's diverse conglomeration of ethnic minorities who suffer abuses in counter-insurgency operations waged by the country's military government which is dominated by ethnic Burmans.
Even as efforts continue to resettle refugees in Western countries, thousands more continue to pour over the border - some 2,000 Karen refugees from Kayin state this spring - fleeing renewed conflict and human rights abuses. In May, UN human rights experts called on the Government of Myanmar to urgently halt counter-insurgency military operations targeting civilians which have led to the forcible eviction and displacement of thousands of ethnic minority villagers in Karen state.
Since 2004 nearly 7,000 refugees have been resettled in third countries. The U.S. recently announced it would accept 2,700 Karen refugees from the overcrowded Tham Hin camp, home to 9,500 refugees, by the end of the year.
UNHCR is working with a number of countries - Australia, Britain, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, as well as Canada and the U.S. - to increase the number of Karen refugees who are accepted for resettlement from Thailand, either as a group, or as individuals with special needs.