In an effort to forge friendship with the military regime in Rangoon, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has abandoned Thailand’s longstanding humanitarian stance towards Burmese refugees. As a result, the security of hundreds of thousands of exiled Burmese has been placed at serious risk.

Under intense pressure from the Thai government, on January 1 of this year the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) suspended its screening of new asylum seekers from Burma. Refugee assistance agencies and human rights groups are being flooded with calls and visits by Burmese asylum seekers asking where to turn to for protection. In a cruel twist, asylum seekers and international refugee relief agencies received virtually no advance notice about the sudden suspension.

The Thai government made this decision, despite the fact that the horrendous conditions in Burma have not ceased. Burmese continue to flee abuses such as forced labor, persecution of dissidents, conscription of child soldiers, rape of ethnic minority women and children by government troops, and forced relocation.

UNHCR officials hope that refugee status determination procedures will start up again next month. That’s the good news. The bad news is that because the Thai government will likely be taking on this important task, many Burmese could be turned away and forced back to their military ruled homeland. That’s because Thailand has historically applied a very narrow definition of refugees as “persons fleeing armed conflict,” rather than abiding by the broader and internationally accepted definition of refugees as persons having a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. This will rule out protection and assistance for many exiled Burmese currently living in Thailand as well as newly arriving asylum seekers fleeing persecution for their pro-democracy activities. Those who are rejected will be classified as illegal immigrants and face the risk of being deported back to Burma.

It appears that Thailand intends to ignore one of the most basic principles of international law: the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement means that governments must not send people fleeing persecution back to countries where their lives or liberty would certainly be threatened.

Under the terms of a Memorandum of Agreement (MoU) between Thailand and Burma signed in June 2003, the Thai government is now deporting 400 Burmese nationals a month directly into a holding center in Burma operated by Burmese military intelligence.

While UNHCR staff posted at the immigration detention centers in Thailand try to identify refugees and asylum seekers before they are deported, there are sure to be people who slip through the cracks. And no one knows what happens to Burmese who are deported once they arrive in the junta’s holding center across the border.

Even more worrisome is the fact that approximately 10,000 Burmese are expelled from Thailand each month in “informal deportations” on the grounds that they are illegal migrant workers. Undoubtedly, asylum seekers and refugees – many of whom are forced to support themselves by working as migrant laborers in Thailand – are caught up in these sweeps.

War of Words
Relations between the Thai government and UNHCR plummeted last June. Prime Minister Thaksin was clearly displeased when Burmese refugees and asylum seekers demonstrated in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok against the May 30 attack in Burma against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and supporters of her National League for Democracy. Thai police arrested twenty-six Burmese demonstrators – including two children – after two separate rallies. All but three of the protesters remain in custody at the Special Detention Center in Bangkok.

Thaksin declared in June that UNHCR had infringed on Thai sovereignty by granting protection to Burmese exiles without informing the government. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow stated in July that Burmese refugees and asylum seekers “are not supposed to be able to engage in political activities that would affect our relations with other countries.”

Soon after, the Thai government announced plans to move thousands of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Bangkok and other urban areas to camps at the Thai-Burma border.

If forced into camps, many of these 4,000 urban Burmese exiles could face threats to their security because of conflicts between political groups and inter-ethnic tensions, as well as cross-border violence. Others are hesitant to relocate to the border, fearing the move may trap them in a detention-like environment, disqualify them for resettlement abroad, or end educational opportunities and medical care available to them in Bangkok.

Finally, the refugees will find it almost impossible to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association in the camps, where it will be difficult to publicly continue their campaign for democracy and reform in Burma.

There is little choice in the matter of relocation. Those refugees who do not comply with the decision to move to camps, other than those deemed to have valid protection reasons, will be stripped of their UNHCR protection documents and terminated from UNHCR financial assistance. UNHCR hopes that resettlement abroad will be considered for refugees whose safety cannot be guaranteed at the border. But it’s far from certain that the Thai government will increase resettlement opportunities for Burmese refugees.

Forced Underground
The Thai government should have few problems tracking down the urban refugees. UNHCR regularly shares the names, addresses, and photographs of Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in Bangkok with the Thai authorities.

However, many believe the Thai government passes on information about the activities and identities of pro-democracy activists to the Burmese regime.

Rather than relocating to the camps, many Burmese may simply choose to “go underground” and slip under the radar screen by terminating contact with UNHCR and the Thai authorities.

Since Prime Minister Thaksin came to office in 2001, Thailand has increasingly been out of step with the international community, by warming its relations with the Burmese military regime and advancing an increasingly harsh policy towards Burmese refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

Sam Zia-Zarifi / Special to The Nation
Sam Zia-Zarifi is deputy director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.