Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018, 12:53 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Thailand

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Thailand , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 2000, Thailand hosted approximately 217,000 refugees. The vast majority, more than 216,700, were from Burma. The Burmese refugees included 115,000 mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni living in camps, 100,000 ethnic Shan living among the local population, and 1,700 former students and urban refugees living at a special camp or in Bangkok.

The 587 non-Burmese refugees included 230 persons whom the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized as refugees under its mandate (62 Sri Lankans, 46 Chinese, 36 Iraqis, 21 Iranians, and 65 others of various nationalities); 172 persons determined to be refugees under the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese refugees (117 Cambodians, 49 Laotians, and 6 Vietnamese); and 240 persons of various nationalities whose asylum claims were pending at year's end.

An estimated 250,000 Burmese and 13,000 Laotians were living in Thailand in refugee-like circumstances.

Thailand's record as a refugee-hosting country remained contradictory. Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention; it generally allows refugees to enter but only if they are fleeing fighting. Sometimes it permits other asylum seekers to enter pending a determination of their admissibility by a specially appointed board, but at other times it refuses to allow them to enter. Thailand permits members of some Burmese ethnic minorities (e.g., the Karen and Karenni) to reside in refugee camps in Thailand, but denies ethnic Shan that protection. In 1998, after many years of resistance, Thailand agreed to permit UNHCR a role with Burmese refugees at the border. Yet Thailand continues to regard UNHCR-recognized refugees as illegal immigrants.

Burmese Refugees

According to the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC), a program funded by dozens of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), religious groups, governments, and intergovernmental organizations, at year's end more than 115,000 ethnic minority Burmese lived in camps just inside the Thai border. A large majority, about 96,000, were ethnic Karen; nearly 19,000 were Karenni.

Approximately 1,000 other Burmese whom UNHCR recognized as refugees lived at a special camp at Maneeloy, west of Bangkok. Most were ethnic Burman former students and political dissidents. Another 700 urban refugees whom UNHCR recognized as refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, also lived in Bangkok. Although the Thai authorities used to permit these refugees to live in Bangkok legally, in the late 1990s the authorities told them to move to the camps for ethnic minority refugees at the border. Most refused to do so, preferring to remain in hiding in Bangkok.

Traditionally, the BBC has provided the refugees only the basic assistance necessary for them to reach a standard of living comparable to that of local villagers. Its philosophy has been to encourage self-sufficiency and maximum refugee involvement in the running of the camps through "refugee relief committees."

The BBC also assists some 2,000 Karen and 10,600 ethnic Mon Burmese who once lived in refugee camps in Thailand but who now live in camps on the Burmese side of the border. The Karen chose to move across the border in 1998, but the Mon were forced to move there by the Thai authorities in 1996.

Until the early 1990s, although the Thai authorities did not permit UNHCR access to the camps, there were no significant security concerns. In the mid-1990s, however, Thailand improved its relations with Burma's ruling military government and toughened its policies toward Burmese refugees. Despite these improved relations, Burmese forces and ethnic insurgents allied with them began attacking the camps in Thailand.

Thailand began restricting refugees' movement into and out of the camps, which curtailed their ability to find work on nearby farms or to rent land and grow crops. Thailand insisted that some camps be moved away from the border for security reasons (the NGOs had deliberately located the camps near the border to encourage the refugees to maintain their identification with Burma). It obliged the ethnic Mon to move their camps to the Burmese side of the border.

The Thai authorities also began refusing entry to Burmese fleeing human rights abuse at the hands of the Burmese military. They said that only those fleeing fighting could enter and receive temporary refuge.

New Admissions Procedures

Under the 1998 agreement granting UNHCR access to the camps, "Provincial Admissions Boards" would be created and charged with determining which Burmese asylum seekers could remain in Thailand and live temporarily in the refugee camps. The Boards began operating in May 1999.

Newly arrived Burmese first report to district officials, who (with UNHCR as observers) make recommendations to the Boards regarding their applications. The Boards are then supposed to make a final determination on whether the individuals meet the criteria for being permitted to stay. A positive determination does not confer any legal refugee status.

The Thai authorities initially said they would expand the admission standard from persons "fleeing fighting" to persons fleeing "the effects of civil war." However, during 2000, it was evident that the Boards were not applying the latter standard.

The system has numerous shortfalls. The central government has not given the provinces directives on how to implement the system; each province has developed its own ad hoc approach to the process. Asylum seekers may face long delays waiting to meet with the district officials. The Boards meet infrequently and follow no set schedule. During this process, the asylum seekers are supposed to stay in special reception centers. However, many settle directly in the refugee camps.

If a Board determines that individuals are "admissible," they are sent to a camp to be registered. If a Board rejects an individual, the authorities are supposed to deport that person.

Between the time of their inception in May 1999 and the end of 2000, the Boards received 19,114 requests to enter the camps (many from Burmese who had already been in Thailand for a year or more but who were not registered in the camps). They rejected 844. UNHCR asked the Boards to review the cases. They did, and upon review rejected 499. By year's end, the Boards had not announced their decisions on the other 345 cases on appeal, nor on the more than 18,000 other pending petitions.

Officially, the Thai authorities, in keeping with their "get tough" approach, deported 267 of the rejected asylum seekers to Burma in mid-2000 (232 others were awaiting deportation at year's end). However, in reality, they permitted several dozen rejected asylum seekers who were elderly or pregnant to remain in the camps.

Because the Thai authorities instituted the Boards procedure for screening new arrivals, UNHCR stopped conducting individual status determinations in Bangkok for former students, political activists, and other prominent or urban Burmese. However, because Thailand grants temporary refuge only to those fleeing fighting, according to UNHCR, "Persons whose villages have been attacked or who have suffered torture for religious or political reasons, may not be covered by the criteria" for admission to the camps. Thus, many Convention "refugees" may have been left unprotected.

Incidents Trigger Backlash

Several assaults by Burmese dissidents on targets in Thailand in late 1999 and 2000 provoked angry responses from the Thai authorities and public. The assaults also contributed to what the BBC termed "growing hostility" toward Burmese refugees.

The first incident took place in October 1999, when five armed Burmese dissidents stormed the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and held 38 persons hostage for 25 hours. The Thai authorities allowed the Burmese to flee by helicopter. The Burmese government, angered by Thailand's decision to allow the embassy attackers to flee, closed the border with Thailand for nearly eight weeks.

In January 2000, a group of ten ethnic Karen who said they were members of the "God's Army" rebel group seized a hospital in the Thai town of Ratchaburi, holding more than 200 patients and staff hostage. God's Army was a small Karen splinter group of about 200 armed fighters led by twelve-year-old twins who, their followers believed, had supernatural powers. The rebels demanded that Thailand provide medical care to other members of their group and that it open its border to more refugees. However, Thai security forces stormed the hospital and killed the gunmen.

Nine Burmese and two Thai prisoners broke out of a jail in November and took eight persons hostage. They later killed three of them. All nine Burmese were eventually killed by the Thai authorities. On December 30, several armed men reputed to be members of what was left of God's Army killed six villagers during a store robbery.

These incidents resulted in the Thai authorities further restricting refugees' movements. The BBC reported that the Thai authorities warned refugees that if they caught them outside the camps they would arrest and deport them. Nevertheless, the authorities generally did not deport refugees caught outside the camps. They usually detained them temporarily and later returned them to the camps.

The incidents also resulted in the Thai authorities' decision to close Maneeloy, the camp for Burmese students and dissidents. UNHCR appealed to the international community to resettle the camp's residents, all of whom were either mandate refugees or "persons of concern" to UNHCR. During the year, more than 1,200 camp residents left for resettlement in other countries. At year's end, 430 others had been accepted for resettlement and were awaiting departure. Some 560 refugees remained at Maneeloy with no prospects for a durable solution.

An October visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata also provoked a sharp response from the Thai authorities. During a visit to Tham Him, one of the border camps (not run by UNHCR), Ogata described it as among the worse she had ever seen. According to Agence France Presse, she said, "I'm told by colleagues that some camps are better and some are worse. If there are any worse, I can't imagine them." Ogata added that the camp was "much too crowded and the shelter situation is really substandard."

The Thai authorities strongly criticized Ogata's comments. "The refugees in the camp are in similar or better conditions than the Thai people who live outside the camps," said one government official. The secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council said, "She did not bother to mention what we have done to help the refugees in terms of their stay and safety."

Shan Burmese

In 1996, the Burmese authorities began a major forced relocation campaign in Shan State. That program, and the human rights abuses associated with it, continued in 2000. (See Burma.) According to the UN Commission on Human Rights' special rapporteur on Burma, there were "credible reports" that the Burmese military massacred more than 100 Shan civilians in a series of massacres in early 2000.

Thailand regards Burmese Shan who seek refuge in Thailand to be illegal immigrants. With minor exceptions, the Thai authorities do not permit ethnic Shan to live in the camps.

This policy has forced the Shan, who are ethnically related to many northern Thais, to join the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented and therefore "illegal" Burmese migrants in Thailand. Most settle in Thailand's northernmost provinces, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son.

There are no firm figures regarding the number of Shan who have entered Thailand seeking protection as refugees. According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) and other observers, more than 100,000 Shan have entered Thailand seeking protection since 1996. The SHRF says that they were able to document the entry of more than 20,000 Shan through one major border crossing in 1999. They documented the arrival of another 12,000 through the same border crossing in 2000.

In the absence of any procedure through which Shan entering Thailand can seek legal protection, and given the human rights abuse directed against the Shan minority in Burma, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) is counting the estimated 100,000 Shan who have entered Thailand since 1996 as refugees.

Burmese in Refugee-Like Circumstances

An unknown number of Burmese live and work in Thailand without documentation. Little has been done to document their reasons for leaving Burma, which may have included to seek employment in Thailand but also to escape the widespread human rights abuses in Burma. Estimates of their number vary greatly. USCR believes that no fewer than 250,000 Burmese are in this situation. Other groups have estimated their number to be as high as a million.

Some work as day laborers on farms. Most work in cities, in construction sites, factories, restaurants, farms, and in private homes. According to a report on Burmese women migrants and refugees in Thailand issued in late 2000 by the U.S.-based Asia Pacific Center, women working in domestic service "often find themselves locked up in houses, isolated and vulnerable to abuses and exploitation." Other women wind up working in brothels.


UNHCR reported that 49 refugees from Laos remained in Thailand at the end of 2000. USCR considered approximately 13,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong living in a Buddhist monastery about 50 miles (80 km) outside Bangkok, to be in refugee-like circumstances. They fled from the UNHCR-run refugee camps for Laotians in the early and mid-1990s to avoid repatriation to Laos.

UNHCR has no contact with the group and does not regard them as refugees. Thailand views them as economic migrants and periodically threatens to deport them, but Laos refuses to accept them.

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