Despite the risk of death, Thailand is sending back refugees from Myanmar

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – A young woman from Myanmar and her family now live among tall grass on a river bank on the border with Thailand, trapped between a country that does not want them and a country whose military can kill them.

Like thousands of other people fleeing growing violence since Myanmar’s military seizure last February, Haye left her village in neighboring Thailand in search of a safe haven that doesn’t exist. Returning to Myanmar would put her and her family at risk of death. And yet this is exactly what the Thai authorities – fearing to jeopardize their relationship with Myanmar’s top military – are telling them to do at least once a week, she says.

“When we were told to return, we cried and explained why we could not return home,” said Haye, who lives in a fragile tent on the Moe River that separates the two countries. The Associated Press did not report Hay’s full name, nor the full names of other refugees in the story, to protect them from retaliation by the authorities. “Sometimes we cross back to the banks of the Myanmar River. But I did not return to the village at all. ”

Although international refugee laws prohibit the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger, Thailand has nevertheless sent home thousands of people fleeing escalating violence by Myanmar’s military, according to interviews with refugees, aid groups and the Thai authorities themselves. This has forced Haye and other Myanmar refugees to ricochet between the two sides of the river as fighting in their home villages flares up and briefly recedes.

“It’s a game of ping pong,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of the border consortium, which has long been a major provider of food, shelter and other support for refugees from Myanmar in Thailand. “You can’t keep walking back and forth across the border. You have to be somewhere stable … And in Myanmar at the moment there is absolutely no stability. ”

Since taking power last year, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,700 people, arrested more than 13,000 and systematically tortured children, women and men..

Thailand, which has not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, insists that refugees from Myanmar return voluntarily to their homeland. Thailand also insists it has complied with all international non-refoulement laws, which stipulate that people must not be returned to a country where they face torture, punishment or harm.

“As the situation on Myanmar’s border improves, the Thai authorities have encouraged them to return to Myanmar voluntarily,” said Thai Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Thani Sangrat. including the principle of non-refoulement, in helping those in need. ”

Somchai Kitcharoenrungrod, governor of the Thai province of Yes, where thousands of people from Myanmar sought refuge, said many crossed them illegally when there was no fighting.

“We had to send them back, as prescribed by law,” says Somchai. “When they faced threats and moved here, we never refused to help them. We have provided them with all basic needs in accordance with international human rights principles. ”

“For example,” he added, “last week we also found an illegal crossing here and sent it back.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than half a million people have been displaced inside Myanmar, and 48,000 have fled to neighboring countries since being captured by the military. UNHCR reports that, according to Thai government sources, about 17,000 refugees from Myanmar have sought refuge in Thailand since seizing power. But only about 2,000 currently live on the Thai side of the border, according to the Thai-Myanmar Border Command Center.

“UNHCR continues to strongly advocate that refugees fleeing conflict, widespread violence and persecution in Myanmar should not be forcibly returned to places where their lives and freedoms may be in danger,” the statement said. agency reports.

Most of those fleeing clashes between military and armed ethnic minority groups along the border have to cross rivers that separate the two countries, with things and babies on their shoulders. Those arriving in Thailand are not allowed to settle in the decades-long refugee camps, which are home to 90,000 people who left Myanmar in the years before seizing power.

Instead, they were transferred to overcrowded barns or shaky tents made of tarpaulin and bamboo. At a time when there is a pause in fighting, refugees and aid organizations say, Thai authorities are sending them back, despite Myanmar’s military seizing villages, burning houses and planting landmines.

“I saw some of them being forced to get in a car, get out by the river and cross to the other side,” said Fo Tingyan, secretary of the Thai Overseas Association’s Irrawaddy Aid Group.

In Myanmar’s border regions, armed ethnic minority groups have been fighting the central government for decades in a bid for greater autonomy, with clashes intensifying after the military takeover. Despite some pauses, witnesses along the border with Thailand say fighting is now the worst in decades. Sometimes shots, bombings and warplanes are heard from Thailand, and even houses on the Thai side of the river tremble from explosions.

Life along the river is bleak and scary.

“It’s close to a war zone,” said Nau Khtoo of the Karen ethnic human rights group. “Elderly and children in makeshift tents are not comfortable … There are diseases not only from the weather, but also from COVID-19.”

In December, 48-year-old Mint, along with her husband and three children, fled the small town of Karen Lei Kay Kau, near the border with Thailand. Officials in Thailand sent them back. With several options, Mint and her family joined about 600 others living near the river on the Myanmar side.

In February, heavy rains flooded their camp, and Mint fears that the impending rainy season will exacerbate an already deplorable situation.

“I think the refugee camps will be in big trouble,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do but make our temporary tents a little stronger.”

On the Thai side of the river, Hay’s tent provides little protection from the hot sun, mosquitoes and torrential rains.

The family craves their home and corn fields near Lei Kay Cow. On Dec. 16, Haye and her husband grabbed their 3-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and fled amid a cacophony of gunfire. When they reached the river, the fighting was still so close that they knew they could not safely stay on the side of Myanmar. And so they stretched across the water to Thailand.

“We want to go back, but we don’t have a home,” she said.

There are no toilets and no money to earn. Food and other supplies were scarce, but Thai authorities denied international NGOs and UNHCR access to refugees.

“The Thai authorities have said they have the resources to respond, and international organizations and the United Nations will not have access,” said Thompson of The Border Consortium. “The Thai authorities keep it inconspicuous, very elementary.”

Most of the aid came from local Thai communities. Fo Tingyang of the Irrawaddy Overseas Association says his group sends 1,000 boxes of rice to refugees every morning and evening, but he had to ask the Thai military for permission to accept donations.

The Thai military is reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of Myanmar refugees in Thailand because that alone could upset Myanmar’s military leaders, said Patrick Fongsatorn, a human rights expert with the Asian group Fortify Rights.

“The Thai military is trying to control the situation, to control the narrative, because obviously they have the political skin in the game, in what is happening in Myanmar,” he said. “They are very close to the Myanmar junta authorities.”

Somchai, the governor of Thailand, seemed to hint at this: “When the fighting stopped, they had to return,” he said of the refugees returned by Thailand. “Otherwise, it could be a significant problem for relations between the two countries.”

The Thai military declined to comment.

Those who remain in Thailand find themselves not only physically but also legally suspended, vulnerable to exploitation. One Myanmar refugee in Thailand who spoke to the AP said that “police cards” – unofficial documents that allow displaced people to avoid arrest or deportation – are purchased monthly through intermediaries for an average of 350 Thai baht ($ 10). Cards are marked with a photo or symbol indicating that the owners have paid the last monthly bribe.

Without the cards, the refugees risk further persecution or possible arrest by the Thai authorities.

“They will take you to the police station, check your documents, check your urine for drug use,” said the refugee, whose name the AP does not name for security reasons. “Police scare people, and cards are the easiest way to avoid it.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanya said the government “categorically denies” any extortion or bribery.

Although 23-year-old Vin and his family first pitched a tent on the Thai side of the river, Thai authorities soon sent them back. The chemist student now regularly crosses the river across the water to his chest to get food, clothes and other donated items from the Thai side. He then turns around and returns to his camp in Myanmar, where he lives with about 300 other refugees, including children and the elderly.

They survive, but only. He says he wants most of all what he can’t have.

“I just want to go home,” he says. “I don’t want anything else.”

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Helinov reported from Sydney.

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