Human Rights Watch today denounced the Thai government's forced repatriation of ethnic minority Karen refugees to Burma. On June 12, the Thai authorities expelled 116 refugees from Don Yang refugee camp in Kanchanaburi Province to Burma's Mon State.
You can't send people back without proper screening," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is a basic principle of international refugee protection. The people who have been forced back should be allowed to return and should be given a proper hearing."
Earlier this year, the Kanchanaburi provincial admission board, one of several such bodies established throughout the border region by the Thai government to process refugee claims, rejected the applications of 116 refugees seeking to remain in the camp. Many of the refugees had fled fighting between the Karen National Union and the Burmese army in 1997, but had reported to the camp only after border-wide registrations in 1998. Thai authorities used the refugees' delay in reporting to the camps as a basis for denying them the right to remain there, a rationale criticized by Human Rights Watch. The provincial admission board subsequently set a deadline of June 12, 2000, for the group to be returned to Burma.
Fearing possible forced return to Burma, many of the refugees moved out of the camp. When a group of Thai army, immigration, border police, and district officers arrived at the camp to deport the refugees, they found only some forty to sixty of the original rejected population. According to reports, officials made up the difference by including other asylum seekers present in the camp who had not passed through the admission process and were not registered. A total of 116 refugees were then forcibly deported to Burma's Mon State where many are presumed to have moved into camps sheltering internally displaced persons. The area is currently subject to a cease-fire between the New Mon State Party and the Burmese government.
"These forced returns set a dangerous precedent for thousands of other asylum seekers whose cases are under review by the provincial admission boards," Saunders said. "To the extent that lack of resources is the problem, the Thai government should discuss burden-sharing with its neighbors and other members of the international community. Protection of Burmese refugees should be on the agenda of the upcoming July ASEAN ministerial meetings in Bangkok."
The Burmese refugee population registered in camps in Thailand numbers over 120,000. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, nor does it have its own domestic refugee law to offer legal guidance. The Thai government, however, has established provincial admission boards to review the cases of new arrivals on a group basis. The boards are currently reviewing the cases of some four to five thousand Burmese.
Thai authorities only allow entry to the camps to those deemed to be "persons fleeing conflict." Only those persons fleeing direct fighting are accepted by the boards. These narrow criteria fail to take into account all of the other grave human rights abuses that cause refugees to flee Burma, including forced relocation, arbitrary execution, forced labor, and torture. Human Rights Watch previously has criticized the provincial admission boards for failing to provide effective protection to those in need. It has also called on the Thai government to suspend any further deportations from the camps until an unambiguous set of criteria consistent with international standards is drawn up for use in status determinations.