UNHCR – Straight-Talking on Refugees

Mr. Iain Hall, the senior field coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees based in the Thai border town of Mae Sot gave an exclusive interview to Karen News.

In the exclusive interview, Mr Hall covers a wide range of issues affecting refugees including repatriation, international humanitarian guidelines, the Burmese government’s responsibilities to protect its citizens and the UHNGR’s working relation with the Thai government on refugees issues.

What does voluntary repatriation mean?
“The word ‘voluntary’ is in the title meaning that return must be of a voluntary nature of the refugees themselves, as an individual decision. So voluntary repatriation is the voluntary return home to their place of origin inside Myanmar or, as Myanmar citizen, the place of their choice.
Voluntary is the most important principle on the concept. Providing information to refugees will help them in making a well-informed decision, and this is crucial. Because there are always pressures in life, it is important that refugee make well-informed decisions based on accurate information, not inaccurate propaganda, then we feel that refugees are able to make their voluntary decision themselves – and not having others making decisions for them.

What are the guidelines?
“Voluntary repatriation is what we call a durable solution, while there may be other solutions that a refugee may find in the future. Another would be a local integration in the country of asylum on a legal basis; or another solution may be resettlement to a third country. In Thailand there has been a very large resettlement of the Myanmar refugees to date, more than 90,000 since 2006.
The guidelines for voluntary repatriation talk about the humanitarian principles associated with refugees return to their country of origin. The first principle being voluntary. Other principles include that their return will be conducted in safety and with dignity. Safety of course will be the assurances that on the route back home and in areas of return are safe. Sustainable return is not possible if armed conflict in that specific area of return is taking place. They are not going to have to cross minefields to get back to the place of their choosing. So that’s the safety element. Then of course there is the dignity. The dignity because when people go back they are citizens of their country and they should be afforded all the rights of a normal citizen, in this case as Myanmar citizens. So they should be able to have access to all normal services that one would expect in one’s country – we call that, if you will, national protection. So for example, they will be able to access documentation, health and education services. And that they are not seen as another level of society but as part of normal society. So dignity is a most important thing.”

Need various players to take their responsibilities seriously?
“Yes, yes. Well of course the Myanmar Government (the country of origin in any conflict situation where we have a refugee out flux). The country of origin, in this case Myanmar, has the primary, responsibility of the protection of its citizens and indeed all civilians on its territory. Just as I and you enjoy the protection of the Royal Thai Government for our safety and security. They [Myanmar Government] hold a responsibility … the primary responsibility. So ensuring the conditions for sustainable return will be the Myanmar Government. But of course they may need support.
“Well founded principles since the creation and the mandate of UNHCR and the Statute of the Office, and international refugee law and the 1951 Refugee Convention. So those principles are enshrined within that international refugee law.”

Situation in Thailand right now – it has stressed it will follow international guidelines.

“Yes you know the international community, certainly UNHCR, the NGO’s, the refugee committees, the CBO’s, and the donor community, have all been working with the Royal Thai Government for 30 years now. RTG has been protecting and assisting refugees during this 30 years and they continue to do that today until their solution can be found, including if that solution is a voluntary return, if its staying within Thailand, or if its resettlement to a third country. Now that is not a new discussion. The discussion on return has taken place over the the last few years. Because of the changes taking place inside Myanmar As we saw in 2010 and the movement towards a civilian-led government. 2011, with President Thein Sein in power. 2012 we saw temporary ceasefires with main non-state actors, the conflict with the government, the KNU, the KNPP and others. There have been 12 temporary ceasefires signed in the last two years. Other reforms taking place inside the country democratic reform, social and economic reform. Those are the signs that allow people to talk about the possibility of return including the refugees themselves. When I arrived here in 2012, there was a discussion then within the humanitarian community, but not between the two governments, mostly within the humanitarian community about hopes and preparedness for voluntary return. That was like the discussions in 2004 when there was also hope; but of course it didn’t take place. But now in the last few years there has been lot of discussion within the humanitarian community about so called preparedness for return. And most recently we have seen from a meeting between the Royal Thai Government and the Government of Myanmar a discussion about the future return of refugees back home.”

There is nothing untoward with Thailand’s position?

“Not at all. I think we have all been assured and reassured again. Assured for many years and reassured very recently by the Royal Thai Government. Last week RTG, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put out a press release assuring that refugee return would be in-line with the humanitarian principles, and under the international standards.”

Do conditions exist now for a return?

“Conditions for return very much depend on a number of factors such as the first one the voluntary decision to return. So for some, refugees as individuals, may believe the conditions are right for them and are fine for return. We have seen several thousand refugees start to go home. Not very announced, not organised (self-assisted), but they have said for them the conditions are right for return. But for the large majority they may not feel that the time is right. Now for UNHCR when we talk about a return there can be several types of return. There can be a return that could take place spontaneously, the refugees themselves go home without seeking any support to do so. They may not seek assistance from UNHCR or from the humanitarian community. Often they go unannounced and are self-assisted. And then there is a return where people may need support and where UNHCR and other organizations can help that return. For example for transportation, for documentation, for assistance back home with the various types of support that they may need. That environment, at the moment we feel may not be there for UNHCR to promote and organize a return. To have a plan and an organised approach to return. Because we don’t see that the refugees themselves are ready for it. There are some key factors. There is not yet peace, only a temporary ceasefire but negotiations are ongoing on for a permanent ceasefire. That could be a major milestone (a permanent ceasefire) and then there is the rebuilding of refugees’ confidence because we know there’s a lack of confidence in the peace process and uncertain futures. So those conditions would have to be pretty much there for UNHCR to organize and then promote a return of refugees. Return is not UNHCR saying “it is time to go”… we are saying that if you want to go because it is your individual decision, if it’s time for you to go, then we’d like to help you.”

There is talk of secret deals, of collusion.

“Yeah, lots of talk, lots of bad press and irresponsible speculation about that. Well, we have this speculation about secret deals and secret planning for the last couple of years and we have been very open and transparent about that at UNHCR as there are no secret deals, there has been no secret planning or decisions. Certainly UNHCR is not sitting down with governments pouring over documents and dates and routes and things like that. We don’t because that’s not the time. It’s not the time for that level of operational planning. And any planning in the context of an organized return – which we are not yet ready to do – would be done in consultation with the refugee community itself. And the last few years we have developed a wide consultation and coordination forum, around preparedness for return which allows all humanitarians to ensure that the concerns and the participation of refugees in any return plan is fully reflected.”

What’s next?
“What’s next? Well, you know, what’s always next for UNHCR is to try to find the way to help refugees to find a durable solution for them; whatever that solution may be. Some may like to go home. And they may need help as that will be their solution. Some may like to go home but may feel they cannot go. We have to look at those and see how we can help. Together with the RTG and other governments on resettlement as some are still in process and some still want too … and are eligible for resettlement. That program continues – and as I mentioned, more than 90,000 to-date. But the group (large-scale) resettlement has come to an end. But individual resettlement continues. So for us, what next is a continuation of the discussion, certain conditions we cannot put in place, UNHCR cannot put in place, a nationwide ceasefire, UNHCR cannot rebuild every school and health post in the areas of origin and return. So there are a lot of actors that need to do a lot of work to prepare for those types of conditions to make voluntary return conducive as opposed to a pressurized return.”

UNHCR primary concern is the welfare of refugees?
“UNHCR’s primary concern has, and always will be, first and foremost the individual protection and the individual rights of human beings, the rights of refugees, as citizens of Myanmar and, at the moment, under the protection of the country of asylum, which is Thailand. That would be our principle concern, and our ongoing concern would be that those conditions that created the influx, the flight to Thailand as refugees, that those conditions and those issues are resolved. So that people can and are able to make decisions about their future.”

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