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Refugee return must be voluntary, insists UNHCR

Originally appeared in The Myanmar Times

April 22, 2013

As international funding for the refugee camps in Thailand starts to decline, UN refugee officials have repeated assurances that any return to Myanmar must be voluntary, based on each individual’s informed decision, and must take place in safety and dignity.

Both the Thai and Myanmar governments have agreed that they will abide by those principles.

But the issue has started to heat up as international donors, noting the signing of ceasefire agreements in some of the country’s long-running conflicts, have started to reduce their funding for the camps.

Ms Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok, told The Myanmar Times by email that the time for voluntary return to Myanmar was not ripe, as the ceasefires had not yet been translated into peace agreements.

She said there were still many challenges in southeastern Myanmar that had to be addressed before refugee returns from the nine border camps could take place in a safe and sustainable way.

“UNHCR does not have a timeframe to start organising returns, but we do need to work with the refugees, [community-based organisations] and NGOs now to make sure that when the time eventually comes, we will all be ready and not be scrambling to cope with the demand for repatriation assistance,” Ms Tan said.

In February, an exile group called Burma Partnership released a documentary, ‘Nothing About Us Without Us: Refugee’s Voices About Their Return To Burma’, in which refugees expressed their concerns about the timing and circumstances of possible repatriation, including where they would live after their return.

UNHCR says it has sought to address the concerns raised in the documentary.

Ms Vicky Tennant, Head of Field Office, South-East, UNHCR Myanmar told The Myanmar Times that the refugees must be in a position to decide for themselves when conditions are right for them to go home.

“If and when they decide to do so, and provided they are able to do so voluntarily, safely, and in dignity, then UNHCR will work with the two governments concerned to ensure that they are able to do so in a way which makes sure that their rights are protected,” she said.

“For now, however, we do not think that the conditions are in place yet. For example, landmine clearance has not yet started, and real progress in the peace process will be needed in order to build the confidence of refugees and give them the long-term security they need in order to return home permanently.”

Ms Tennant said recent developments in Myanmar, particularly the ceasefire agreements and peace talks, had given rise to hopes that if progress continued many refugees would eventually be able to return home and re-establish their lives back in Myanmar.

She said the Burma Partnership video was “not as balanced as it could have been. It made some unfair allegations against UNHCR and did not fully reflect our responses to those allegations. As a result, the film may have contributed further to the refugees’ anxiety about repatriation,” she said.

“The film also suggested that UNHCR is involved in ‘relocation sites’ in southeastern Myanmar for returning refugees to settle in. This is incorrect,” she said.

“We do think, however, that it is important for planning to take place in Myanmar to absorb refugees who will eventually return home. The Myanmar authorities have said that returnees will be able to choose where to return to within the country.”

The documentary did not reflect the open and frank discussions UNHCR had and continues to have with Burma Partnership, she said.

Daw Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, said the documentary aimed to send the message that no policy on repatriation should be decided “without the full and direct participation of members of the group affected by that policy”.

“We’re trying to present the real situation of what is happening on the ground in the refugees’ camps. We are sharing the refugees’ communities’ worries and concerns to the respective authorities, the media and international organisations in order to ensure that the preparation of the refugees’ return is done with the direct participation of the refugees,” she said.

“This video is a way to remind the Thai and Myanmar governments that they must prepare and plan the repatriation process in compliance with international standards and in a transparent and inclusive manner with the affected population.

“It is also a way to call on the UNHCR to develop broader consultation and information sharing mechanisms to inform and engage with refugees and their community representatives regularly and meaningfully, including during the preparation phase of the repatriation process.”

The Thai government has assured UNHCR on several occasions that it has no deadline for returns, and that refugees will not be forced to repatriate.

The government of Myanmar has also said that refugees will be welcomed back and assisted to reintegrate but that, ultimately, it is for the refugees to decide if and when they are ready to return.

There are more than 128,000 refugees living in the temporary shelters inside Thailand. Some of them have already been accepted for resettlement to third countries, such as the United States and Australia, and some may prefer not to return even if the situation continues to improve.

View the original article here.

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