World refugee day not a cause for celebration

Saw The Blay, has spent 27 of his 34 years as a Karen refugee in Mae La refugee camp in Tak, Thailand and says he regrets not being able to live in his homeland.

“I want to go back, but I dare not to go back. We cannot go home because there is no security – nothing but fighting and landmines.”

Saw The Blay is like many of the Karen refugees now living in camps in Thailand, hoping one day they can return home in peace and safety instead of the bleak existence they have in Thailand.

Saw The Blay took refuge in Thailand with his family when he was eight-years-old after his village, Maw Poe Kay was attacked. He says he is grateful for the safety in Thailand.

“I live in Thailand, but my soul is in my homeland…only my body is on the border.”

Burma refugees living in Thailand joined in the ceremonies to acknowledge June 20th as World Refuge Day.
An UNHCR report released to mark 60th World Refugee Day listed Burma as the world’s fifth highest country with 415,700 registered people taking refuge with neighboring countries, Thailand and Bangladesh.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) estimates that there are now 143,315 refugees in nine refugee camps along Thai-Burma border. The number is almost 50,000 higher than UNHCR registration figures from 2005. The Thailand based-refugees from Burma are mostly ethnic Karen – 79 percent.

According to the UNHCR report, as many as 20,000 refugees from the Thai camps have been resettled.
Naw Hser Pa, now 51, a widow with three daughters, lives in Mae La camp and said.

“I lost my husband when he stepped on a landmine eight years ago. I want to go back to Pe Ta Ka, my village, but the situation is not getting better so I can’t.”

Naw Hser Pa, says she is now losing hope of ever going back to her homeland.

Many refugees at Mae La camp say they want to go back to their homeland but because of the ongoing conflict and lack of jobs and little opportunity for their children and consider resettlement to a third as the only option left.

Naw New Nee says she has had enough of being a refugee.

“If I can go back to my homeland, I will be happy, but I am losing hope to go back and have enough this life, I have decided to resettle.”

Naw Nwe Nee, originally from Than Daung Gyi village in Taungoo says she had to run with her family after hearing the Burmese Army was going to arrest them for helping a villager who was injured by landmine.
Naw Nwe Nee decides to resettle to third country.

Recent national media reports, quoting government officials in the Thai media about the government’s plans to close the border refugee camps and to repatriate Burma refugees has raised the anxiety levels of refugees.

Thai officials have said now that Burma has held national elections and it has a civilian government it is time the refugees were repatriated. However, many international humanitarian groups have said Burma’s first elections in 20 years have changed little and point to the escalation of armed conflicts since the new parliament was put in place.

Fighting has broken out between ethnic Shan, Kachin and Karen resistance groups and the Burma army in recent weeks. In Karen state border areas as many as 15,000 displaced people have crossed over into Thailand and similar numbers have crossed into China after fighting broke out between the Kachin and Burma army.

Naw Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of Karen National Union told Karen News that to repatriate refugees now would be a crime.

“The situation in Burma in Karen State is dangerous for civilians. There is fighting every day, especially along the border, if the refugees go back they will be putting their lives at risk.”

Karen National Liberation Army quarterly battle reports statistics for January to April 2011, show that there were more than 654 clashes between Karen fighters and the Burmese army resulting in 661 Burmese soldiers being killed and another 848 wounded – six Karen fighters were killed and seven wounded in the same period.

Ms Sein says it is well documented that the Burma army militarization of Eastern Burma is a humanitarian disaster.

“The Burma Army continues its military offensive in Karen State. It is committing many human rights violations against civilians – forcing them to be human shields to protect their soldiers, using villagers to clear mines and using them as forced labor in frontline positions.”

Ms Sein says there has to be a real political solution between ethic groups and the Burmese government before the Thai government should even start to consider sending refugees back.

“To solve the problem it will need international pressure to be put on the new military government, it needs ASEAN, especially Thailand to pressure [the Burma government] to enter dialogue to find a political solution.”
Meanwhile, Saw The Blay says.

We don’t want to be forced back. We don’t want to go back to the same situation that we had to run from. We want to go back with an arrangement that guarantees our security, our children and our families. We don’t want to become refugees in our own country.”

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