Refugee policy needs rethink

Refugee policy needs rethink

The influx of ethnic Karen refugees fleeing war in Myanmar across the Thai border has raised questions yet again over Thailand’s policies on refugees and its cosy ties with the Myanmar military.

In the ongoing civil war on the Thai-Myanmar border, Myanmar troops clashed with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) in the Myawaddy township opposite Tak’s Mae Sot district in December last year.

The battles culminated in deadly airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks on Christmas Day. Thousands of civilians, mostly ethnic Karen villagers, fled for their lives, crossing the Moei River to seek safety in Mae Sot.

When the Myanmar army sent planes to bomb KNU bases, the rockets and gunfire from heavy artillery attacks spilt into Mae Sot, prompting the evacuation of villagers. The government remains silent over the spillover.

The military offensive later spread to border areas opposite Phop Phra district, sending another influx of war refugees into Thai soil. At its peak, the number of refugees was higher than 7,000. Many were children, women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

The blockaded shelters, the insufficient emergency aid, and the prospect of forcible returns explain why many ethnic Karen from Myanmar are now hiding in Thai border areas which makes them vulnerable to various forms of abuse.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of innocent villagers remain locked in war zones in Myanmar, hiding for safety without food and other necessities.

For those who have fled to Thailand, security forces put them in a temporary shelter, barring humanitarian groups from assisting them. Food and other necessities from civic groups must be handled through the military only.

Forget international aid for refugees. Since Thailand refuses to sign the Refugee Convention, there are no “refugees” in the country. Aid for refugees, therefore, cannot be accepted.

For state authorities, people who fled to Thailand from wars, violence, and persecution in their countries are treated as illegal aliens, liable to deportation at any moment. Meanwhile, the “displaced persons” in border camps and asylum seekers outside routinely face hardship and hopelessness from systematic disregard.

A party to the Refugee Convention or not, Thailand has an international obligation not to push people in distress back to face danger back home under the principle of non-refoulment.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening. Despite violence across the border, the army has begun sending ethnic Karen villagers back.

Since the military takeover in 2014, Thailand has repeatedly violated the principle of non-refoulment. The forcible return of asylum seekers and political dissidents to China, Bahrain, Turkey, and Cambodia, for example, have received wide international condemnation. Yet the government remains unperturbed.

Moreover, the government has been turning back refugees arriving by sea and air. In 2015, the world was shocked when Thailand pushed hundreds of Rohingya boat people back to the sea — and possible death.

Appeasing like-minded authoritarian regimes has become the norm for the current administration.

At present, the situation on the Thai-Myanmar border remains highly fluid. Although the fighting between Myanmar troops and ethnic Karen rebels has subsided with looming ceasefire talks, the area still sees sporadic clashes.

The recent influx of refugees from war-torn Myanmar was not the first to occur, nor will it be the last. Thailand must handle the situation better by learning from past mistakes.

The government can no longer turn a blind eye to political violence in Myanmar because it directly affects Thailand’s security and international image. Indifference to violence in Myanmar has long had the effect of saddling Thailand with economic and political refugees as well as human and drug trafficking. The policy to cement military ties and business interests has cost immense human and social suffering on both sides of the border.

Peace in Myanmar means peace in Thailand. The government should be more proactive to engineer peaceful co-existence in a culturally pluralistic Myanmar.

When peace is not yet at hand, Thailand should adopt the Refugee Convention to welcome international assistance and create legal infrastructure to provide safety and rights to refugees and asylum seekers. It also must stop forcible returns of refugees and asylum seekers.

Thailand must stop kowtowing to pressure from autocratic regimes. Siding with the oppressors only makes Thailand one of them.