UMPHANG DISTRICT, Thailand — It’s late afternoon, and an agitated crowd has gathered at the center of Nu Po refugee camp. Men wearing traditional Burmese longyis pace along a dirt road flecked with sunlight and red betel nut stains.
“We want to speak to the U.N.,” says one man, gesturing toward a thatched bamboo hut bearing the organization’s blue and white logo.
They are among 120,000 refugees who fled war and persecution in neighboring Myanmar and are now scattered across nine camps in western Thailand. Nu Po, a vibrant camp dotted with homes, shops, mosques, temples and churches, lies beneath towers of limestone and verdant jungle less than five miles from the border.
But amid the picturesque scenery, there is growing desperation and anger.
“I can’t resettle, and I can’t go back,” says U Zaw Shwe, an activist from Myanmar’s Rakhine state. He escaped to Thailand after the ruling junta’s bloody suppression of the 2007 pro-democracy uprising known as the saffron revolution. The 61-year-old says he fears arrest if he returns to his native country, where the government continues to clamp down on dissidents even after announcing democratic reforms.
But Zaw Shwe is not considered a refugee by the Thai government, which has refused to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which sets international standards for the treatment of asylum seekers. Thailand stopped registering refugees in 2005 in a bid to stem the influx of new arrivals. Analysts suspect that pressure from Myanmar played a significant role.
That has left some 60,000 people — nearly half the refugee population from Myanmar — in perpetual limbo on the border, deprived of basic legal protections and ineligible for resettlement. They have watched as others have departed for new lives in other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United States. More than 70,000 Myanmar refugees have been resettled in the United States since 2005.
But in January the U.S. government formally ended its group resettlement program, insisting that all eligible people have had time to apply. The move extinguished one of the last hopes for many unregistered refugees and sparked a wave of protests in Nu Po. On Thursday the Thai military seized power in a coup, throwing the country into turmoil and potentially stalling dialogue on Thailand’s refugee policies.
When my children grow up, my son will tell me, ‘You are a bad father. You didn’t help us.’
camp resident and former labor-rights activist
“I arrived before [many] other people, but they got registered, and I didn’t,” says Myo Win. His family does not even qualify for the U.N.’s family reunification program — one of the only remaining resettlement options for unregistered refugees — because they do not have any close relatives already resettled abroad.
"When my children grow up, my son will tell me, ‘You are a bad father. You didn’t help us.’”
The 50-year-old former labor rights activist has been in Thailand since 2006, when he traveled there to see his brother-in-law, a member of the outlawed ethnic rebel group the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU has waged a decades-long battle against the central government over its mistreatment of the Karen, a long-persecuted minority from Myanmar’s southeastern borderlands. During the visit, Myo Win’s brother-in-law died in a motorbike accident. Myo Win called his wife to share the news.
“The next day my father-in-law was arrested,” he says, allegedly for unlawful dealings with the group, which remains banned in Myanmar despite signing a tentative peace deal with the government in 2012. Terrified of also facing arrest, Myo Win urged his wife and children to join him in Thailand, where he has since been petitioning the U.N. for resettlement.
“I arrived before [many] other people, but they got registered and I didn’t,” says Myo Win. His family does not even qualify for the U.N.’s family reunification program — one of the only remaining resettlement options for unregistered refugees — because they do not have any close relatives already resettled abroad.
"When my children grow up – my son will tell me ‘you are a bad father – you didn’t help us!’”
The 50-year-old former labor rights activist has been in Thailand since 2006, when he travelled there to see his brother-in-law, a member of the outlawed ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU has waged a decades-long battle against the central government over its mistreatment of the ethnic Karen, a long-persecuted minority from Myanmar’s southeastern borderlands. During the visit, Myo Win’s brother-in-law died in a motorbike accident. Myo Win called his wife to share the news.
“The next day my father-in-law was arrested,” he says, allegedly for “unlawful” dealings with the group, which remains banned in Myanmar despite signing a tentative peace deal with the government in 2012. Terrified of also facing arrest, Myo Win urged his wife and children to join him in Thailand, where he has been petitioning the U.N. for resettlement ever since.
The human rights abuses here are as bad as back in Myanmar.
camp resident from Myanmar’s Rakhine state
Tensions in Nu Po have been exacerbated by a sense that members of the Karen ethnic group, who make up the majority of the camp’s residents, are favored over other refugees. Most of the early arrivals in Thailand were Karens fleeing civil conflict and ethnic persecution in southeastern Myanmar, meaning they were more likely to be registered and eligible for resettlement.
Meanwhile, unregistered refugees — including many Burmese who fled after the saffron revolution — cannot attend professional training classes at other camps or apply for senior positions at camp committees because of travel restrictions. Until last year, they were not even allowed to vote for committee members.
“The human rights abuses here are as bad as back in Myanmar,” says Zaw Shwe. We do not have equal rights.”
The camp committees are democratically elected, which favors the Karen. The Border Consortium (TBC), an umbrella group that coordinates humanitarian work in the camps, says it has established “ethnic coordination groups” in a bid to elevate minority voices.
Some aid workers, speaking off the record because of the topic’s sensitivity, have criticized the U.N.’s refugee agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over its handling of the border situation. The UNHCR’s Bangkok-based information officer, Vivian Tan, said the organization is working with the Thai government to develop a solution but admits there are many unresolved questions.
From the international community’s perspective, their focus has shifted toward the longer term needs in Myanmar.
executive director, the Border Consortium
It is extremely unlikely that Thailand will reopen refugee registrations now that Western governments have resurrected diplomatic and economic relations with Myanmar, aid workers say.
“There’s certainly not the call on the Thai government to reopen registration for resettlement,” says Sally Thompson, TBC’s executive director. “From the international community’s perspective, their focus has shifted toward the longer term needs in Myanmar.”
Some international donors, including the European Union, Australia and Norway, have already slashed funding for groups working with migrants and refugees on the border, contributing to a food shortage for thousands of vulnerable families. TBC’s budget was cut by 106 million baht ($3.3 million) last year, forcing the group to cut food rations from 12 to eight kilograms of rice per month for most refugees.
“We don’t have enough food. I have to work outside the camp by planting vegetables during the day,” says Soe Zaw Sharr, a Burmese political activist who fled Myanmar in 2008.
The U.S. government, currently TBC’s largest donor, plans to review its funding in 2015, when Myanmar is expected to hold its first democratic general elections since 1990. Washington has pumped millions of dollars into the former dictatorship since it embarked on a democratic reform program in 2011, a move some analysts see as a hasty geopolitical maneuver aimed at containing the influence of China.
Yet the legitimacy of the 2015 elections is far from certain, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi constitutionally barred from the presidency and the military guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament. Earlier this month, President Thein Sein insisted that amending the controversial constitution would “hurt the people.” Violence continues to flare in Myanmar’s border regions, where armed ethnic groups are fighting for greater autonomy and rights, and other parts of the country have been shattered by religious violence.
“Overall, the attitude of most refugees is one of great caution,” says Tan. “They want to be sure that they are returning to areas where there won’t be renewed fighting.”
In Karen state, where the number of people fleeing conflict has plummeted since the government’s cease-fire with the KNU, villagers have seen a spike in land grabs and evictions linked to large-scale development projects. A recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group cited evidence of a booming drug trade and related violence, while civilians continue to be arbitrarily detained, exploited and tortured by government-backed militias. That could be devastating for refugees who choose to return as funding on the border dries up.
Thailand has this idea that somehow someone will flip a switch after the 2015 elections and all the refugees will pack up and leave, but I don’t think that’s realistic.
deputy Asia director, Human Rights Watch
But the biggest question is what will happen to those left behind.
“Thailand has this idea that somehow someone will flip a switch after the 2015 elections and all the refugees will pack up and leave, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The more likely scenario is that unregistered refugees will quietly seep into Thailand’s illegal migrant workforce, a vulnerable and often exploited group whose cheap labor sustains the Thai economy. Most refugees are already forced to work illegally outside the camps in order to survive, placing them at risk of arrest and deportation.
Myanmar refugees could also choose to integrate legally through Thailand’s existing migrant registration systems. But these programs have been marred by corruption, often forcing workers into the clutches of fraudulent broker agencies who charge hundreds of dollars in arbitrary service fees.
“Thailand’s migrant worker policy is in disarray, and it’s not clear that the government has given serious thought to this important question,” says Robertson. “I expect that we will see some groups of special cases in the refugee camps offered last-minute third-country resettlement, but the vast majority will face a return or disappear option — with the disappearing act being departure from the camps as undocumented migrants.”
That presents a bleak picture for people like Myo Win, desperate to secure a better future for his family. “The U.N. told me, ‘Please wait for a moment, and we will help you,’” he says. “I am still waiting."