MAE SOT, Thailand – The UN refugee agency field office in Mae Sot has been working for the last 15 years in nine refugee camps along Thailand’s western border.
These camps are home to 102,777 refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Iain Hall is senior field coordinator at UNHCR in Mae Sot. He’s been doing this work over the last 24 years.
“Refugees have a deep down heartfelt desire to go home. That’s what they want to do. They didn’t come here by choice and many lament, they’ve been in the camps many years, but they still may not feel confident to go home. But the confidence is growing, so because of that growing confidence in the situation back home that we will see large returns in 2017,” Hall said.
Way Lay, 31, sits at a coffee shop in Mae Sot, 72 kilometres from the refugee camp he lived in most of his adult life. He looks a bit uneasy when asked about the organized return of 71 refugees by UNHCR to Myanmar last October.
“The place where refugees return, the political situation is unstable. Human rights abuse keeps happening. The safety is not enough for them to return yet. As far as I know the government of Myanmar does not have a systematic plan for refugee return,” he said.
The UNHCR calls the organized return of these 71 refugees a “milestone.”
It goes on to state that it does not promote refugee return, it only facilitates, if a well-informed, voluntarily, decision has been made.
A safe and dignified return
Hall says the UNHCR will only help refugees if the agency is able to provide a safe and dignified return.
“Dignified, what we mean by that is they are welcome home, that they have full access to their rights as Myanmar citizens upon their return, access to education, access to health, access to documentation and to livelihoods,” Hall said.
Seventeen refugees were sent to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Forty-eight refugees have returned to southeast Myanmar, where the majority of refugees in the camps originate. But six refugees have returned to Rakhine and Kachin, two states that have become active battlefields.
“If you are interested and you have a right, under Article 13 of the declaration of human rights: To return to one’s own country. Then let us know about it and we’ll see what we can do. We don’t automatically help because we do have concerns that need to be answered before we would support facilitated return,” Hall said.
This year, hundreds of refugees are waiting and tens of thousands could return if all goes according to plan. But it won’t become an exodus, Hall adds.
Debary Kunoo is a 22-year-old born and raised in Mae La refugee camp outside of Mae Sot. Her parents want to return to Myanmar, to restart their lives, but she’s had to tell them how unsafe it actually is.
“I think it is not the time for the refugees to return because there’s nothing in the country support the refugees there,” she said.
Democratic reforms in Myanmar
A ceasefire signed by the Myanmar army in 2015, and the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, has led to a peaceful transition inside the country.
But according to Way Lay and Debary Kunoo, the reality along the border areas, where fighting continues, is much different from Yangon and Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.
“The nationwide ceasefire agreement, for those who signed it has pretty much held. But there have been incidents all the same. Refugees look at those types of security incidents quite carefully. They left because of conflict and the last thing they want to do is return to a conflict situation,” Hall said.
Officials are saying the UNHCR plan will resolve one of Asia’s longest refugee situations. But with the continued fighting in Myanmar, a new refugee situation is being created as this one comes to an end.
Published online @PRX