Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Thailand

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Thailand , 10 June 2002, 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.

Thailand hosted more than 277,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001. Nearly all, more than 276,000, were from Burma. The Burmese included more than 125,000 mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni living in camps, 150,000 ethnic Shan living among the local population, 1,155 Burmese recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and 175 Burmese with cases pending before UNHCR. Burmese continued to flee to Thailand in 2001, despite restrictive Thai policies.

The 741 non-Burmese refugees in Thailand included 364 persons whom UNHCR recognized under its mandate (including Cambodians, Sri Lankans, Chinese, Iraqis, and others); 34 Hmong from Laos remaining in Ban Napho camp; and 343 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 remains mixed. Although Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it generally allows refugees to enter, but only if they are fleeing fighting. Sometimes the government permits asylum seekers fleeing human rights abuses and other forms of persecution to enter, pending a determination of their admissibility by a specially appointed board, but at other times it refuses them entrance. Thailand allows members of some Burmese ethnic minorities (e.g., the Karen and Karenni) to reside in Thai refugee camps, but denies ethnic Shan similar 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.

In June, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) conducted a site visit to Thailand to assess the situation of Burmese Shan asylum seekers. USCR found that Shan refugees continued to flee persecution, particularly forced relocation, at the hands of the Burmese authorities, but were given no protection in Thailand.

Burmese Refugees

According to the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) – a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) – more than 125,000 ethnic minority Burmese lived in ten camps along the western border provinces of Thailand at the end of 2001. While most were "registered" camp residents, several thousand were awaiting interviews by the Thai government's Provincial Admissions Boards. Others had been rejected by the boards, but nevertheless continued to live in the camps. The majority were ethnic Karen and Karenni, while others were Mon, Pa-O, Shan, or other ethnicities.

At year's end, 1,155 Burmese who were individually recognized as refugees by UNHCR remained in Thailand. Of these, 891 lived in or near Bangkok, 213 lived in the Tham Hin border camp (having been relocated there in late December following the closure of the special camp at Maneeloy, where they had previously resided), and 51 lived in the border town of Mae Sot. Another 175 Burmese with cases pending before UNHCR lived in or near Bangkok.

Although Thailand formerly permitted Burmese refugees to live in Bangkok legally, in the late 1990s the government ordered the refugees to move to the border camps. Most refused to do so, preferring to remain in hiding in Bangkok.

During the year, 597 Burmese approached UNHCR for individual refugee status determinations. The refugee agency decided 749 Burmese cases (including some pending from the previous year), approving 480 and denying 269.

The BBC provides assistance to the Burmese in the border camps. Traditionally, the BBC has provided the refugees only basic assistance, enabling them to reach a standard of living comparable to that of local villagers while encouraging self-sufficiency and maximum involvement in the running of the camps through "refugee relief committees."

The BBC also assists some 500 Karen and 12,500 ethnic Mon Burmese who once lived in refugee camps in Thailand, but who now stay 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 by the Thai authorities in 1996.

Until the early 1990s, there were no significant security concerns, although the Thai authorities did not permit UNHCR access to the camps. 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 in and out of the camps, curtailing their ability to 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). The government forced 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, contending that only those fleeing fighting could enter and receive temporary refuge.

In February 2001, Thai authorities finally permitted entry to some 60 Burmese who had been waiting at Wedgi, on the Burma side of the Salween River, for three months. The Thai army and border police had prevented them from crossing the river into Thailand since November 2000. UNHCR and NGOs had advocated with the authorities to allow the group's entry.

In December, Thai authorities moved Johnny and Luther Htoo, 15-year-old twins who had formerly led the "God's Army" Karen rebel group, from a police station in Suan Phung District to the Ban Don Yang border camp. In 2000, the rebel group had seized a hospital in Thailand and held more than 200 persons hostage before Thai forces stormed the hospital and killed the gunmen.

When Thailand's prime minister visited Burma in June, the two countries once again discussed plans for a large-scale return of the Burmese refugees. The discussions included encouraging a greater role for international NGOs inside Burma, prompting concern among refugee advocates who feared that such a development could be used as an excuse for premature repatriation.

Admissions Procedures

The 1998 agreement granting UNHCR access to the camps also established Provincial Admissions Boards to determine which Burmese asylum seekers could remain in Thailand and live temporarily in the 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 the refugees' applications. The boards then determine 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, at the end of 2001, Thailand maintained that new arrivals must be fleeing actual and confirmed fighting, even though Thai officials generally did not return persons screened out under this standard.

The admissions system has numerous shortfalls. Because 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, since the boards meet infrequently and follow no set schedule. During the process, 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," the government sends them to a camp to be registered. If a board rejects an individual, the authorities are supposed to deport that person. According to UNHCR, during 2001 the boards applied the admissions criteria even more strictly than before, resulting in an increased number of rejections. UNHCR expressed concern over the rejections to the Thai authorities, and appealed to officials to reconsider many cases. Although the authorities did not reverse any decisions, they allowed most (but not all) of the rejected cases to stay in the camps and receive assistance.

The boards convened four times during 2001 and screened 8,319 asylum seekers. Of those, they approved 872 persons (10 percent) and rejected 7,447, according to UNHCR. At year's end, 6,529 claims were pending before the boards.

Forced Returns

According to UNHCR, the Thai army in Mae Hong Son Province forcibly repatriated two Burmese asylum seekers (including one Shan) during 2001. UNHCR, which did not have access to the individuals, made a formal protest to Thai provincial authorities.

On October 20, a group of 63 Karen entered Thailand at Tongphapoom District, Kanchanaburi Province. UNHCR interviewed each asylum seeker and confirmed that most had fled a Burmese relocation area because of forced labor and nearby fighting. The admissions board, however, rejected the asylum seekers' applications. UNHCR appealed for the group's admission at the local and national levels, as well as through UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. On November 6, Thai authorities moved the group to Sangkhlaburi District and returned them to Halochanee, a Mon cease-fire area of Burma. Some refugee advocates said this action was the clearest case of refoulement since the admissions boards were established. Thailand's National Human Rights Committee said it received complaints that the Karen had been tricked into signing repatriation forms.

The Thai army instructed the returnees to go to the Htee Wah Doh "camp," where Mon returnees and Karen internally displaced persons lived. Following the group's arrival, Burmese troops occupied the camp and began fighting a Mon splinter group, causing as many as 700 Htee Wah Doh residents and the 63 new returnees to flee to the border area. At year's end, Thai authorities had not allowed them to enter Thailand, despite appeals by UNHCR, several embassies, and NGOs.

In August, Thailand announced the imminent return of some 5,000 Karen from Ma La camp who had been screened out by the admissions boards, and publicly criticized UNHCR for opposing the repatriation. By year's end, however, the government had not returned the refugees.

Closure of Maneeloy

In 1999 and 2000, several assaults by Burmese dissidents on targets in Thailand, including the Burmese embassy, provoked angry responses from the Thai authorities, who further restricted the refugees' movements and warned them that if they left the camps they would be arrested and deported (which generally did not happen). The incidents also resulted in Thailand's decision to close Maneeloy, a camp for Burmese students and dissidents west of Bangkok, which had operated for nearly ten years. The government considered Maneeloy a threat to national security.

UNHCR appealed to the international community to resettle the camp's residents, most of whom UNHCR considered either refugees or "persons of concern."

During 2000, more than 1,200 Maneeloy residents left for resettlement in other countries, with 430 others awaiting departure. Another 560 refugees remained at Maneeloy with no prospect for a durable solution.

By the end of October 2001, some 470 Burmese were left in Maneeloy, including 213 UNHCR-recognized refugees. Thailand set December 15 as the camp's closing date and said most of the remaining residents would be moved to an undisclosed "safe" border location, while another 100 residents, whom the government classified as "illegal immigrants," would be deported.

Prior to the closing, Maneeloy residents said that they were at risk in Thailand and that the camp should remain open until they were all resettled. Some held demonstrations or went on hunger strikes. However, the Thai government and UNHCR agreed to move most of the Maneeloy residents to Tham Hin, a border camp primarily for Karen refugees, which has suffered from overcrowding and poor health conditions. Some advocates opposed the move, saying that bringing ethnic Burman political dissidents and other "urban refugees" into Tham Hin would create serious tensions, particularly with the Karen. In addition, they said, the conditions at Tham Hin would likely be unacceptable to the Maneeloy residents.

The government moved the deadline for the closure and relocation to December 27, to allow more preparation. The move went smoothly, with almost 400 Maneeloy residents transferring peacefully to Tham Hin. (Others had "disappeared" from Maneeloy prior to the transfer.) Questions remain as to how many will be eligible for resettlement. In addition, advocates note a continuing need for alternative protection solutions for the non border refugees, who may number in the thousands.

Shan Burmese

In 1996, Burmese authorities began a major forced-relocation campaign in Shan State. The program, and the human rights abuses associated with it, continued in 2001. Fighting between ethnic Shan insurgents and Burmese troops, as well as the Burmese regime's relocation of tens of thousands of ethnic Wa into traditional Shan areas, forced thousands of Shan to flee to Thailand.

Thailand regards Burmese Shan who seek refuge in Thailand to be illegal immigrants, and with few exceptions prohibits ethnic Shan from living 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. In recent years, including 2001, Thailand's increasingly vigilant effort to deport undocumented workers has included the Shan.

During USCR's site visit in June, Shan refugees said they lived in constant fear of deportation. Many rarely left the farms where they worked, and few sent their children to school. Some said that they wanted to be able to live in the camps with other ethnic minorities, while others said they preferred to live by their own means, but wanted Thailand to grant them legal status. USCR reported its findings at a press conference in Bangkok on June 20.

Most Shan settle in Thailand's northernmost provinces, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son. According to NGOs, there are two unofficial Shan refugee "camps" in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. Shan State Army resistance troops protect both camps, which literally straddle the border. One of the camps, with more than 800 residents, is also very near to Burmese army troops and Thai military positions, resulting in a tense security situation.

No firm figures exist regarding the number of Shan who have entered Thailand seeking protection as refugees. A 2001 report by the Burmese Refugee Committee (BRC) estimated that some 300,000 Shan reside in Thailand, half of whom fled forced relocation campaigns in central Shan State. According to the report, an average of 1,000 Shan entered Thailand each month during 2001.

In the absence of any legal protection for Shan entering Thailand, and given the human rights abuse directed against the Shan minority in Burma, USCR counts as refugees the estimated 150,000 Shan in Thailand who have fled forced relocation.

Burmese in Refugee-Like Circumstances

An unknown number of other Burmese live and work in Thailand without documentation. Some may have left Burma simply to seek employment in Thailand, while others may have escaped human rights abuses. Some work as day laborers on farms, but most work in cities – in construction sites, factories, restaurants, and private homes. Estimates of their number vary greatly. USCR believes that no fewer than 250,000 Burmese are in this situation (although estimates of the "illegal immigrant" Burmese population in Thailand reach as high as 1 million).


UNHCR reported that 34 refugees from Laos remained in Thailand at year's end. The group lived in Ban Napho camp in Nakhon Phanaom, in Thailand's northeast, where some 40,000 Laotian refugees formerly resided. In May, the Lao government said it would not consider taking back this last group until UNHCR did more to help reintegrate the 1,200 refugees returned under a 1999 tripartite agreement between Thailand, Laos, and UNHCR.

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. The group had 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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