Shan groups fear refugee repatriation

opinion August 14, 2013 00:00

By Sai Khur Hseng
Ying Harn Fah

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Shan community groups are concerned at signs that Myanmar authorities are preparing to repatriate Shan refugees from a camp in northern Thailand, even though there is no guarantee for their safety.

Last month, Myanmar police from Tachilek visited Koung Jor camp in Wiang Haeng district, northern Chiang Mai province, asking whether the refugees wanted to return to Myanmar. Even though none expressed a desire to return, the camp leader was contacted shortly afterwards by the Myanmar military commander at Mong Taw, 15 kilometres across the border, to say that new housing would be built for returning families in his area. 
In August 2012, plans by a Norwegian NGO contracted under the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative to survey the Shan refugees about returning to Myanmar were cancelled, after it was publicised that the designated resettlement site at Mong Hta (near Mong Taw) was still an active war zone, strewn with land mines. It is unclear if international donors will be supporting the latest plans to build housing for returning refugees in the Mong Taw-Mong Hta area.
The security situation in this border area has not improved since last year. It remains heavily militarised, especially following increased tension between Myanmar and Wa forces in southern Shan State in recent months.
There are currently about 500 refugees, almost half of whom are children, staying in Koung Jor camp, set up in 2002 after fighting on the border between the Myanmar army and the Shan State Army-South. It is the only Shan refugee camp in Thailand. Most of the hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict in the Shan State during the past few decades have had no access to refugee camps, and have been forced to survive as migrant workers throughout Thailand.
Koung Jor camp has a less formal status than the other nine camps in Thailand, which primarily house Karen and Karenni refugees. Shan community groups therefore worry about a higher likelihood of involuntary repatriation.
“The Shan refugee crisis has been pushed under the carpet for years,” said Ying Harn Fah of the Shan Women’s Action Network. “Just because most Shans don’t have refugee status, that is no excuse to deny the few recognised Shan refugees the right to a safe return.”
The Shan groups are demanding that any plans by Myanmar, Thai and international stakeholders to repatriate Shan refugees be fully transparent and guarantee safety and dignity, and that any repatriation must be voluntary.
This article was released by the Shan Human Rights Foundation, Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, Shan Women’s Action Network, Shan Youth Power and Shan Youth Network Group.