Aid workers have welcomed a “long overdue” headcount of Burmese refugees living in three of 10 camps along the Thai-Burmese border, hoping this will address the problems of thousands who are unregistered and thus missing out on vital services.
The census began in late May on the orders of Samart Loifah, governor of Tak Province, where the Mae La, Umpiem Mai, and Nu Po camps are located.
“Currently around 40 percent of the camp population is unregistered,” Sally Thompson, deputy executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an umbrella group of 12 international NGOs working to assist refugees and displaced people from Myanmar. Such people do not have access to health, education and other services available to those who are registered, she said.
The Thai government stopped screening and registering new arrivals in 2005 after officially giving refugee status to nearly 140,000.
About 70,000 have since received third-country resettlement - mainly in the USA, Canada and Australia - while more people, mainly ethnic Karen and Karenni, continue to cross the 1,800km Thai-Burmese border.
An estimated 50,000 now live as unofficial residents in government-run camps. As of April 2011, TBBC figures show a total camp population of 143,000, while the Ministry of Interior puts the number at 93,000. The census is designed to count the total number of registered and unregistered camp inmates.
Thompson said TBBC’s primary concern had been the lack of an effective registration process.
“There are delays in medical referrals and hospital clearances. In the food sector people end up having to share [rations]. Many are sharing accommodation with other friends and relatives. If you’re not registered, you don’t get to vote in the internal elections, so you don’t have a voice.”
“Nervous and scared”
Refugees living in the camps “feel insecure” about the implications of the census, the TBBC reports - a concern shared by Burma Partnership, a network of Asia-Pacific organizations supporting human rights in Myanmar. Many refugees suspect Burmese pressure behind the move.
As of 9 June the census was ongoing, said the Karen Refugee Committee, a refugee representative body within the camps.
The census is taking place after comments made in April by National Security Council chief Tawin Pleansri that Thailand intends to close down the camps in the future.
Governor Samart, who ordered the count, has been quoted in the past as expressing dissatisfaction about the economic strain the refugee situation had placed on Thai-Burmese trade, including Myanmar’s decision to close the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge in Tak Province in July 2010.
Khin Ohmar, the coordinator of Burma Partnership, said that while the census is supposed to be a routine procedure, rumours were circulating within the camps about why it was being conducted now.
“Since the news on repatriation started, people are very nervous and scared,” she said.
“They have tried to call for more information. If the count is different from regular procedure, then it will be worrying for the Burmese people. Thailand is the only sanctuary for them.”
Despite the comments of both Pleansri and Governor Samart, the government of Thailand has not placed any timeframe on repatriating refugees. In April, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said refugees would be sent home to Myanmar only “when it’s safe for them to return”.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions