By NAW NOREEN
A Thai governor's recent suggestion that thousands of refugees housed in camps along its northwestern border may have to return to Burma has sparked concern among the refugee community.
More than 145,000 men, women and children have lived in nine camps in Thailand for the past 30 years but that may soon end, Tak governor Samart Loifah told media last week, adding that the Thai government should consider asking them to return voluntarily.
He also reportedly said that foreign assistance to the camps should be cut to encourage them to leave, while Thailand had ditched plans to screen those without legal status to see if they qualified as genuine refugees, and not economic migrants.
Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well among the refugees, the majority of whom have fled decades of conflict in Burma's eastern Karen state.
"I won't go back even if the government says so," said Saw Tapeseh, who lives in Nobo camp in Phop Phra district. "I have no home to go back to – the villages I used to live as a child have disappeared. I don't know where to return to. There is no security for me to return next year; the border area is currently littered with landmines and clashes."
Fighting continues along the Karen state border as Burmese troops battle an ethnic alliance of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU).
Saw Tun Tun, chairman of Mae La camp, the largest in Thailand with a population of nearly 46,000, said he had little optimism that things would change in Burma.
"I don't think they [new Burmese government] will be able to solve armed conflicts in the border region. That's why we harbour no hope of returning yet… The international organisations concerned must provide us with the minimum level [of assistance]."
Refugees have continued to move back and forth across the border since a fresh wave of fighting broke out in November last year. The border area remains heavily landmined, and civilians are often forced to porter for the Burmese army.
There have also been rumours that the Burmese army has threatened to confiscate property belonging to the refugees unless they return this month.
Saw Albert from the Thailand-based Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) said that the refugees could face problems obtaining food and accommodation if they are sent back soon, particularly those who fled years ago.