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Thailand-Myanmar: Concern over refugee camp closure plans

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BANGKOK, 12 April 2011 (IRIN) - Aid agencies in Thailand are concerned about a government plan to close a string of Burmese refugee camps along its western border.

According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), a group of INGOs operating along the 1,800km-long border, about 142,000 Burmese refugees live in nine government-run camps.

"Any plans to close the camps at this point would be premature," Jack Dunford, executive director of the TBBC, which provides food and shelter in the camps, told IRIN on 11 April.

"We all want the camps to close and for the people to return. But that can only happen when things in Burma change, allowing people to return in safety and dignity."

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has officially registered about 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand, agrees.

"It's logical that the camps close in the future; however, the conditions need to be right on the other side," said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Their comments follow media reports on 10 April that Bangkok planned to close the camps following the recent handover of power to a new government in Myanmar.

"They [the Burmese refugees] have been in Thailand for more than 20 years and it became our burden to take care of them," National Security Council chief Tawin Pleansri reportedly said.

"I cannot say when we will close down the camps but we intend to do it," he said, speaking after a meeting of the government security body chaired by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"We are now in the process of discussion with the Myanmar government."

According to UNHCR, there are about 100,000 registered refugees in Thailand, and some 9,000 asylum-seekers in Thailand.

Most refugees are ethnic minorities from Myanmar, mainly Karen and Karenni. The bulk of assistance at the camps is provided by NGOs, while UNHCR focuses on protection activities and programmes to ensure they are safe in the camps.

The agency also advocates that the refugees be given greater liberty to come and go from the camps, particularly to work in Thailand's labour-short economy.

Since the launch of a third-country resettlement programme in 2005, more than 58,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled from the camps, mostly to the United States, Canada and Australia.

Resettlement features prominently in UNHCR's strategic plan for assisting Burmese refugees in Thailand.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]