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UNHCR and Thai Government Failing to Protect Burmese Refugees

(Geneva) - In a report issued today, Human Rights Watch criticized the Royal Thai Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for failing to give adequate protection to the more than 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand.

In the new report, "Unwanted and Unprotected: Burmese Refugees in Thailand," Human Rights Watch said that even with the May 1998 agreement formalizing working arrangements between Thailand and UNHCR, significant gaps in refugee protection remained. Burmese refugees in Thailand will continue to be in danger, the organization said, until UNHCR has full and unimpeded access to all Burmese refugees in Thailand, is able to conduct screening of newly arrived asylum-seekers, and has guarantees that repatriation will take place only when human rights conditions in Burma are conducive to return.

The report says the danger to refugees has been exacerbated by the fact that Thailand is among the hardest hit of the countries struck by the Asian economic crisis. In its efforts to deport undocumented migrant workers, of whom Burmese are the overwhelming majority, the Thai government makes little distinction between refugees and migrants. Because of the lack of effective refugee status determination procedures, it may be deporting people with a valid claim to refugee status, if only they had the opportunity to assert it.

Human Rights Watch identifies part of the problem as stemming from Thailand's failure to ratify the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the treaty that establishes the legal regime for refugee protection, and calls on the Royal Thai Government to immediately become party to that treaty. It calls for the immediate cessation of the Thai practice, in effect since June, of closing its borders to new asylum seekers. Rejection at the border of those with a well-founded fear of persecution is a violation of Thailands's obligations under international law.

Part of the problem also lies with UNHCR. While acknowledging the constraints the agency faces because of its need to maintain relations with Thailand, Human Rights Watch says UNCHR "has been unnecessarily weak in its efforts to challenge the Thai policies that undermine refugee protection."

Human Rights Watch is particularly critical of the Burmese government, whose policies are ultimately responsible for the influx of refugees into Thailand. It notes the role that Burmese government policies of forced labor and forced displacement have played in the exodus of Burmese to Thailand. Human Rights Watch urges the government to comply with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution of April 20, 1998, which calls on the government in Rangoon to address specific human rights concerns and create the conditions that would enable refugees to return.

The new report is based on Human Rights Watch research conducted since 1988. It examines the factors affecting Thai policy, including its experience with Indochinese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, and the changing relations betweeen Thailand and Burma. It profiles the two major groups of refugees from Burma: the "students" -- a catch-all phrase to denote the mostly urban students and professional who took part in the 1988 uprising and subsequent political protests, and members of the different ethnic minority groups living close to the Thai border, who have fled armed conflict, forced displacement, forced labor, and other abuses. Those groups include the Karen, the Karenni, the Mon, and the Shan in particular.

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