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More cooperation vital to protect refugees

By Khin Ohmar  • 

Originally appeared in The Myanmar Times

October 7, 2013

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and community-based organisations working on Myanmar refugee issues have not always seen eye to eye.

Community-based organisations in the past have criticised the UNHCR for not being transparent about its discussions with the governments of Myanmar and Thailand over their plans for the refugees. The community groups also believe it has not recognised the important role they can play in the planning and decision-making processes leading to the eventual return of refugees to Myanmar.

These community groups are comprised of refugees themselves and are the best allies the agency can have to fulfil its mandate effectively and efficiently. But CBOs perform a number of additional valuable functions. They have taken the lead in raising awareness about the rights of refugees and international standards for voluntary repatriation, while also highlighting the importance of inclusiveness and transparency.

They are in a position to advocate with the Myanmar government, which is more likely than the Thai government to attempt larger informal involuntary repatriation in the name of “pilot projects”.

They can also communicate information from non-state armed groups, who also support voluntary repatriation and whose role will be significant when repatriation occurs, but who cannot be identified as “official” parties in the UNHCR framework. Finally, CBOs can also help identify partner organisations in areas within Myanmar to which refugees are likely to return.

How will repatriation work? When the process eventually begins, the UNHCR will be party to a tripartite agreement signed with the governments of Myanmar and Thailand.

All three core stakeholders say they uphold the principle of voluntary repatriation, and have agreed not to attempt to accelerate the process of repatriation or pressure refugees into returning to Myanmar. All stakeholders agree in principle that now is not the time for the estimated 160,000 refugees on the Thailand-Myanmar border to be repatriated, as no one is confident that such an ambitious process can be safely undertaken at present.

In the meantime, the UNHCR’s mandate is to protect the rights of refugees and to continue advocating for voluntary repatriation. It plays a vital role in preventing both governments from acting unilaterally and this role will become even more important once the tripartite agreement is signed.

However, activities that directly or indirectly undermine the principle of voluntary repatriation have occurred. For instance, there have been reports of Thai army officials visiting Nu Po refugee camp and asking refugees informally to return home to Burma, promising that they would ensure that the Tatmadaw “doesn’t come to those areas”.

Another attempt was made by a Tatmadaw commander, who said that housing would be built for families returning to his area of control. The offer came shortly after Myanmar police from Tachilek in Shan State visited Koung Jor, a Shan refugee camp in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province. Such “informal” attempts by authorities on both sides of the border to repatriate refugees – generally isolated incidents that occur without broad consensus by relevant parties – must be halted immediately.

Refugees rely upon the UNHCR to highlight these incidents as part of its mandate. The UNHCR must not fear upsetting the apple cart: Its role is to speak out against infringements or irresponsible activities by the governments or armies of Thailand and Myanmar. Instead, it has been CBOs who have spoken out.

However, recent progress has been made as a result of cooperation between UNHCR and community groups. These groups’ efforts to advocate for voluntary repatriation have been enhanced by the UNHCR’s limited but improved recognition of their role in the process.

The UNHCR has recently introduced a channel for accommodating the input of community groups in the form of stakeholder meetings involving not only CBOs and the UNHCR but also non-government organisations, refugee committees and camp committees. This forum was held for the fourth time in Mae Sariang on August 21 and has enabled community groups to ensure that their role is officially recognised in the UNHCR coordination mechanism for voluntary repatriation.

While these stakeholder meetings are a fruitful initiative and represent positive collaboration, they have been undermined by a variety of challenges. These include not only logistical issues, such as language barriers, travel restrictions and CBOs’ lack of resources, but also a lingering lack of trust and understanding between different stakeholders. The UNHCR should try to listen to all relevant voices, including the full spectrum of community groups working on refugee issues, and be transparent in terms of its own activities.

These are early days and the fact that coordination attempts are happening at all is testament to a growing recognition of the role that each party plays. Both the UNHCR and CBOs should appreciate that they are working for the same cause – namely, advocating for voluntary repatriation, acting as a check and balance on the Myanmar and Thai authorities and, most importantly, protecting refugees – and will be more effective if they support each other. If they do, both parties can expect to build on the recent rapprochement to the benefit of the most important stakeholder: the refugees themselves.

Khin Ohmar is the coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of regional and Myanmar civil society organisations supporting the collective efforts of all peoples working towards democracy, peace, justice and human rights in Myanmar.

View the original article here.

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