By Saw Yan Naing 15 May 2017
MAE LA OON, Thailand — The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has invited refugees to discuss a voluntary repatriation plan in Mae La Oon camp, one of nine refugee camps in Thailand along the Thai-Burma border.
According to sources in the camp, the UNHCR invited refugees who expressed interest in returning to Burma to visit the volunteer repatriation center (VRC) office, which would facilitate return arrangements for the refugees.
However, The Irrawaddy reporter also found some people who were invited for interviews despite not wanting to return.
A refugee housewife, Ger Tha Moe (nickname) told The Irrawaddy in Mae La Oon camp: “I don’t want to return home and I didn’t contact them [VRC]. I don’t know why they asked me to come in for an interview.”
The invitation letter read: “the following persons are kindly requested to be at the place mentioned here below in the camp for the interview. Please take your UN Households registration with you.”
Ger Tha Moe was requested at the VRC office on Tuesday.
“I will go and ask them [the UNHCR] if they can ask the Burma Army to withdraw its troops from my village. I want to know why they asked us to go home,” added Ger Tha Moe.
Ger Tha Moe and her family have lived in several refugee camps in Thailand for more than two decades since fleeing northern Karen State, which is a Karen National Union’s Brigade 5 controlled area.
Although the Burma Army and the KNU signed a ceasefire agreement, there are still Burma Army troops near many villages and some civilians do not feel safe returning home at this point.
“We dare not go home because there are Burma Army troops and landmines near our village. If they’ll withdraw their troops, we’ll go home right away on our own,” said Ger Tha Moe.
She had previously applied for resettlement in the United States but her application is pending as she was told her husband did not qualify for the resettlement program because he did not live in a camp. Ger Tha Moe said he does live in a camp and has a UN registration card.
Vivian Tan, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, told The Irrawaddy in an email that she was not aware of this particular case and would have to look into it further.
“Refugees who are interested in voluntary repatriation can approach us at the VRC for more information,” she said, adding, “If it was a misunderstanding, we will need to check with colleagues on the ground.”
Sources in Mae La Oon refugee camp also told The Irrawaddy that several woman and families had been requested to visit the VRC office in the past month, many of whom were not interested in returning and had not contacted the VRC.
There are VRC offices in all nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. They discuss safety and support for those who want to be repatriated.
As the peace process is underway and financial support has been declining along the border, the Thai and Burmese governments, as well as international non-governmental organizations, have been preparing for refugee repatriation in recent years.
There are more than 90,000 refugees living in the nine camps along the border.
Last month, international agencies and INGOs including The Border Consortium (TBC) also reduced a stipend given to about 10,000 community workers in the camps due to declining funding.
CORRECTION: While the invitation letters have caused some confusion within the refugee community, the UNHCR has looked into the case in question and told The Irrawaddy that in this instance, the letter was a request to come to the VRC for resettlement counseling.