Still not safe to send back refugees

Following three days of discussion representatives from organizations working on refugee issues along the Thai-Burma border, refugee representatives, civil society groups, political leaders agreed that the current situation in Burma is not safe for refugees to return.

Over 40 representatives including the United Nation High Commission on Refugee, Refugee Camps Committees, The Border Consortium, Karen National Union, Thai official from Mae La camp administration office, Thai border based and Burma based community-based-organizations and civil society groups met for a three days workshop to discuss issues related to refugees repatriation that was organized by the Karen Refugee Committee from May 14 to 16, in Mae La refugee camp.

The objective of the meetings was to provide a forum for groups to share information relating to the return of refugees from the Thai border back to Burma, identify key processes and the conditions needed for safe repatriation.

Pastor Robert Htwe, chairperson of the Karen Refugee Committee spoke to Karen News about the workshop.

“The main goal is for us all, including INGOs, CBOs, Camp Committees and KRC, to come together and discuss about being prepared for the return. We need to talk about how can we work together when the time is right [for refugees] to return. We only shared information on the issue – it is not that we were a ‘return’ now. There will be a need for discussions and the right conditions to be put in place, but we still don’t know when we will be able to return.”

Pastor Robert Htwe stressed that the workshop was only a discussion about being prepared in of repatriation and as yet there was no planning or discussion about an actual return of refugees.

Topics discussed during the three-day workshop included the draft framework for the peace process, land rights, civil society participation in the peace processes, humanitarian access, refugee participation in planning, organising consulting communities in areas of potential return, community media and information dissemination and advocacy with both the Thai and Burmese governments.

According to Pastor Robert Htwe, there was an agreement from the workshop attendees that when the time is right for returning refugees, the Camp Committees, KRC, UNHCR, TBC and CBOs would work closely together on the issue.

Robert Htwe said.

“We need to be prepared in advance and we all need to work together – KRC, NGOs, CBOs and other related agencies to help those who want to return.”

On April 26, Pastor Robert Htwe, the chairperson of the Karen Refugee Committee and two camp committee members met with the Karen State government in Hpa-an Town where the State government expressed their willingness to receive returning refugees. The KRC said that the situation or the time was not right and it is not possible now.

KRC in released statement said that it had outlined its position on the repatriation of Karen refugees living on the Thai-Burma border based on key conditions being put in place – a nationwide ceasefire, political settlement, the clearance of landmines, respect for human rights and the physical and work security for refugees.

Workshop participants said the three-day meeting concluded with a number of key messages that they would take back to share with their organisations and communities. Key messages included, the KNU peace building process, an update on KRC’s meeting with the Karen State Government and its position on refugee repatriation, UNHCR’s framework on refugee voluntary repatriation and the Thai government’s position on refugee repatriation.

Saw Hsa Ka Hsaw, the secretary of the Karen Student Network Group who took part in the workshop told Karen News what he took back to his community.

“The key messages that we got from the workshop were about the refugees returning. The common position was that now was not the right time for refugees to return because the KNU peace process is still at the first step. KRC’s position was that the necessary conditions to enable refugee repatriation are not yet been met. Both the Royal Thai government and UNHCR said that the time is not right to send back refugee and that they do not have an operational plan for repatriation and it is now too early to prepare one.”

Since the ceasefire agreement reached between the Karen National Union and the Burma government in January 2012, discussions and talks about refugee return have been held on many occasion by the relevant organizations and agencies responsible for the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.

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