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(New York) - Thailand should immediately stop pressuring ethnic Karen refugees to return to Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. Repatriation to the designated "return zone" in Burma would place returnees at serious risk of human rights abuses and landmines.

On February 5, Thai military and civilian officials sent three families of Karen refugees, comprising 12 adults and children, from a temporary refugee site at the Thai border to Ler Per Her, a site for internally displaced persons inside Karen state in Burma. The families are part of a group of 30 families recently singled out to return to an area in Burma from which they fled after fighting in mid-2009. Thai military officials gave assurances to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that any returns would be voluntarily, but the return followed weeks of aggressive tactics to coerce the refugees to return, Human Rights Watch said.

"Thai authorities are cajoling and threatening Karen refugees to head back into harm's way, while maintaining Thailand is not breaching international refugee law," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Thai government should reverse course before these refugees are harmed by mines or pressed into forced labor by the Burmese army."

In May and June 2009, approximately 4,500 Karen fled pervasive use of forced labor and a military offensive in northeastern Karen state by the Burmese army and their proxy-militia, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), against the anti-government Karen National Union (KNU) and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). They crossed the border and settled into Nong Bua and Mae U Su, two temporary refugee sites in Tha Song Yang district of Tak province in western Thailand. An estimated 2,400 of the refugees are living in rudimentary quarters in these isolated temporary sites close to the border.

Local Thai military officials claim there is no fighting across the border in Burma and assert that it is safe for the Karen to return. However, refugees at one of the sites told Human Rights Watch there has been extensive planting of landmines in their villages back in Burma, and they fear being used as forced porters by the Burmese army and the DKBA.

Human Rights Watch has grave fears for the safety of civilians forcibly returned to active conflict zones inside Burma. All three parties to the conflict in Karen state extensively use antipersonnel mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Burmese army, DKBA, and KNLA continue to plant landmines near their military bases, on trails in the jungles, and around civilian settlements and agricultural fields. According to the Burma section of the annual Landmine Monitor Report there were 721 casualties from landmine injuries in the country in 2008. Burma has not ratified the Mine Ban Treaty and rarely participates in international forums to ban the use of landmines. There are virtually no de-mining operations currently in eastern Burma, and landmine education is limited.

On January 18, a 25-year-old Karen woman who was nine months pregnant stepped on a landmine in the refugee return zone, losing half of her left foot.

I walked back into Karen state with my ten-year-old nephew. I was 9 months pregnant. I was walking on the path leading into the village, and I followed the buffalo just off the path and then stepped on the landmine. Half of my foot disappeared. I could not walk. My nephew ran back over to Thailand to get my husband to help me. It took about 30 minutes for them to come. Three men carried me on a [makeshift bamboo] stretcher. I was worried, I feared for my baby. I was taken to Mae Sot hospital [in Thailand] and they took my baby out [C-section] on the same day. I don't want to go back to my village [in Burma]. I only went back once and I stepped on a landmine. I'm afraid to go back again. It is not safe anywhere.

"The risks from landmines to people forced back to Burma are deadly real," said Adams.

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to halt all plans to return the group and to allow UNHCR to interview and conduct refugee status determinations. International refugee support organizations have repeatedly recommended that all 2,400 Karen be temporarily relocated to an existing refugee camp at Mae La, a one hour's drive south of Tha Song Yang.

Human Rights Watch said that the Thai government should not heed empty promises by the DKBA and KNLA, which have reportedly told Thai military officials and refugee representatives at Nong Bua and Mae U Su that they will clear landmines in the Ler Per Her return area. The DKBA has agreed to become part of the Burmese army's "Border Security Guard," and has expanded its territorial control over much of the Thai-Burma border in Karen state. Armed groups make extensive use of landmines to exert local control in situations of continued low level conflict punctuated by military offensives.

"Trusting armed militias to remove the landmines they have sown is no way to reassure refugees, and Thai authorities should not be complicit in this charade," Adams said. "Thailand should instead properly screen, register and shelter these families instead of threatening them into crossing a border."

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