The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged stakeholders to start preparing for the repatriation of more than 100,000 refugees living along the Thai-Myanmar border.
James Lynch, UNHCR’s regional representative, yesterday highlighted the need to start discussing legal, socio-political and logistical issues regarding repatriation, even though the return of refugees to Myanmar is yet to materialise.

“This is the first time for the refugees to think of the possibility of returning home,” Mr Lynch said. “Conditions for the repatriation may not be in place,” he said, raising issues such as landmines, shelters and a lack of a peace agreement among the region’s many ethnic groups.

“But we still should think about the preparations,” he said, adding that refugees will return to their original countries.

At present, there are 84,000 registered and 67,000 unregistered refugees in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Some 78,000 people have been resettled to a third country, mostly to the United States, since the resettlement programme began in 2005.

Mr Lynch said he hoped the UNHCR would be able to outline repatriation pre-requisites with the Thai and Myanmar governments by next year.

He said the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which signed an agreement to gather basic information about the displaced people, will begin their documentation later this year at Tham Hin camp in Ratchaburi, one of the nine temporary shelters.

He expects the Tham Hin profiling to be completed by April or May. The information gathered will include a census of refugees’ origins, skills and education.

Myanmar officials should also come to Thailand to speak to refugees about their return, he said.

Mr Lynch said peace and reconciliation in Myanmar is the key to successful repatriation. He has been in contact with the Myanmar government, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders.

Myanmar has set aside areas inside Kaya (opposite Mae Hong Son), Kayin (opposite Tak), and Mon (opposite Kanchanaburi) states for internally-displaced persons as well as refugees, he said.

Myanmar authorities have also established garment factories to provide employment opportunities, he added.

“They also issue a citizen scrutiny card for the returnees,” he said. “It’s a voluntary repatriation.”

The political process would need to ensure the safety and dignity of the returnees, he said.

Despite the UNHCR’s optimistic assessment, the Myanmar exile community in Thailand remains sceptical about the chances of a speedy repatriation.

“The international community is too optimistic about the situation inside Myanmar,” said Bangkok-based scholar Zin Linn.

The Karen National Union (KNU) and Kachin Independence Organisation are learning from each other and they will not easily strike a deal with the Myanmar government until they receive a political solution they want, Zin said.

“Nothing is certain for the refugees if they return home _ accommodation, education, healthcare or employment,” he said.

“The KNU-Myanmar peace talk only started because of a big push from the Thai investment project in Dawei. It cannot be realised without concessions being made by the KNU and the government. But the prospect of refugee repatriation remains bleak.”