Refugees — time to go home?

Rumors of repatriation of refugees from Burma living in camps along Thai-Burma border are a major causing talking point for camp residents. Recent political developments in Burma and the recent ‘peace talks’ between the Karen National Union and Burma government have added uncertainty to the refugees futures.

The Karen Refugee Committee based in Thailand said that they have yet to be informed officially about repatriation of refugees.

Saw Robert Htwe, Chairperson of the Karen Refugee Committee spoke to Karen News.

“Until now, we haven’t been told or informed by any related officials regarding the repatriation of refugee from Burma on the Thai Burma border. We’ve told every camp committee and all camp residents that we won’t be going back if the situation and conditions are not right.”

Saw Aung Than, secretary of the camp committee at Tham Hin refugee camp said that refugees have not been informed about repatriation by donor organizations such as UNHCR, KRC or other relevant officials, even though the Burma government is inviting people to return.

Saw Aung Than told Karen News.

“Even if the Burma government forces us to go back, we won’t go back. There is still no guaranteed security or work for us there at the moment – we won’t be going back. When the time is right and situation is safe, we will definitely go back.”

Saw Aung Than said, that if the government is serious about the wanting refugees to return, they need to start preparations now. The process should start with consultation with refugees. Saw Aung Than pointed out that there were many issues to be considered before refugees were to return – location sites, housing, land rights, citizen identity cards, livelihood opportunities, education and a secure environment free of landmines.

Rumors of repatriation started to spread among refugee communities living along the Thai Burma border after the KNU and Burma government signed a ceasefire agreement in January this year.

A Tham Hin camp refugee said that he still has doubts about the government.

“I am still distrust the government. We’ve been living here [refugee camp] for many years. We have never seen the [Burma] government prepared anything worthwhile for the return of refugees.”

A refugee youth from Mae La camp said he is willing to go back, but only if the conditions are right.

“We have to get our rights back as a human being and we should be equal. If I have livelihood opportunities and I can restart my life, I will go back. The government has responsibility for the safe return of refugees.”

Saw Eh Htee Kaw, chairperson of the Karen Youth Organization based in Mae La camp said that the government should solve the return of internally displaced person in Burma first. Only after the IDPs are resettled should refugees should return.

“I think it is still early to work on the return of the refugees. Within Burma, there are many IDPs that are facing problems even worse than refugees in the camps along the border. I think that the IDP situation should be resolved first – then the refugee position should be worked on.”

Many refugees along the Thai Burma border say they are excited about the prospect of returning home, but at the same time express caution about the ‘peace talks’ between the KNU and Burma government. Refugees spoken to by Karen News said that having peace is better than fighting and they hope for a genuine peace.

There are nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border – Mae La, Umpheim, Nu Po, Mae Rama Luang, Mae La Oon, Tham Hin, Ban Don Yang and the two Karenni camps, with a total population, estimated by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, of 139,042 people.

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