Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2017, 16:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Thailand

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Thailand , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 17 October 2017]
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 nearly 336,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2002. The overwhelming majority, more than 335,000 were from Burma. The Burmese include more than 133,000, mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni, living in camps; an estimated 50,000, mostly Karen, living outside the camps; at least 150,000 ethnic Shan living among the local population; some 1,400 Burmese recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and 614 Burmese with cases pending before UNHCR.

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Burmese continued to arrive in Thailand each month during 2002, despite restrictive Thai policies.

The 846 non-Burmese refugees in Thailand included 376 persons whom UNHCR recognized under its mandate (including Cambodians, Chinese, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, and others); 34 Hmong from Laos remaining in Ban Napho camp; and 436 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.

Although Thailand is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it generally allows refugees to enter, but only if they are fleeing fighting. 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. Thailand has allowed UNHCR to assess the refugee claims of some Burmese, but it regards UNHCR-recognized refugees as illegal immigrants.

Burmese Refugees

According to the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) – a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing assistance to the refugees – more than 133,000 ethnic-minority Burmese lived in ten camps along the western border provinces of Thailand at the end of 2002. While most were camp residents registered by BBC, more than 17,000 Burmese resided in the camps without being formally registered – and therefore without official access to food and other assistance. The majority were ethnic Karen and Karenni, while others were of Mon, Pa-O, Shan, and other ethnicities.

An estimated 50,000 Burmese asylum seekers, mostly Karen, lived outside the camps in the Thai border area without assistance.

At year's end, more than 1,400 Burmese who were individually recognized as refugees by UNHCR remained in Thailand, while some 600 more had cases pending. Most resided in or near Bangkok and were part of the "urban" caseload distinct from the camp population.

Although Thailand formerly permitted Burmese refugees to live in Bangkok, in the late 1990s the government ordered them to move to the border camps. Most remained in Bangkok in hiding.

During the year, more than 1,400 Burmese approached UNHCR for refugee status determinations. The refugee agency decided some 800 Burmese claims in 2002 (including some pending at the end of 2001), granting about 450 and denying 350. At year's end, some 600 were pending.

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.

In addition to assisting the Burmese in Thailand, the BBC assists more than 11,000 mostly ethnic Mon (and some Karen) who once lived in Thai camps, but whom Thai officials forced to move to camps inside Burma in 1996.

In the mid-1990s, Thailand improved its relations with Burma's government, and began restricting refugees' movement in and out of the camps in Thailand and curtailing their ability to work on nearby farms or to rent land and grow crops. Nevertheless, Burmese forces and ethnic insurgents allied with them attacked some of the camps in Thailand, which temporarily soured relations between the two governments. Thailand insisted that some camps be moved away from the border for security reasons. The NGOs, however, while agreeing that the camps should be far enough from the border to avoid attacks, wanted the camps to remain in the border area to facilitate the refugees' ties with Burma and their eventual voluntary return.

The Thai authorities also began refusing entry to Burmese fleeing individualized persecution, contending that only those fighting between the government and insurgents could enter and receive temporary refuge – a reversal of traditional protection categories. This policy continued in 2002, despite earlier Thai pledges to change the standard.

Beginning in April 2001 and continuing throughout 2002, Thai officials went to the Burmese refugee camps in Tak Province, near Mae Sot, to promote "voluntary repatriation." The officials specifically targeted persons rejected for admission to the camps and new arrivals, as well as Burmese residing outside the camps. The government reported that more than 1,000 asylum seekers accepted about $14 per person (600 Thai Baht) and returned to Burma during 2002. The government conducted no similar repatriation efforts in the other camp areas. UNHCR said there were some spontaneous returns, but doubted their permanence because of continued violence in Burma.

Breakdown of 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.

Newly arrived Burmese reported to district officials, who (with UNHCR as observers) made recommendations to the boards regarding the refugees' applications. The boards then determined whether the individuals met the criteria for being permitted to stay, but a positive determination did not confer any legal status.

In 2002, the boards did not meet. In any case, the boards had rejected all new arrivals as not fleeing direct and confirmed fighting. The Thai government directed the NGOs to feed and assist only the registered camp residents, even though the camps included thousands of persons who were rejected or never interviewed.

Camp Relocation

During the rainy season, the Thai government relocated the population of one of the Karenni camps into another camp closer to the border. Officials said the relocation was necessary because of tensions between the camp population and the residents of the nearby Thai village. UNHCR said the new camp was already overcrowded and less secure.

Forced Return

In January, a group of 600 to 700 Mon and Karen who had been residing in a Mon relocation site inside Burma crossed the border into Thailand near Ban Don Yang camp. They had fled fighting between government troops and Mon rebels and had amassed near the border at the end of 2001. Thai troops blocked access to the camps, barred UNHCR and NGO staff from the area, and pressured the asylum seekers to return, with threats to cut off assistance. UNHCR attempts to contact the group failed. After consulting with members of the New Mon State Party, which has signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese government, Thai officials transported the asylum seekers back across the border and informed UNHCR that no new arrivals had been reported.

Also in 2002, Thailand raided the offices of Burmese dissident groups in the border areas and arrested and deported persons associated with them. Late in 2002, at UNHCR's request, the government agreed to identify and separate those Burmese with valid protection claims and to refer such persons to UNHCR or allow them to relocate to the camps.

Shan Burmese

In 1996, Burmese authorities began a major forced-relocation campaign in Shan State, which continued into 2002. 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, as did the Burmese military's systematic rape of hundreds of women and girls in Shan State. The Shan are ethnically related to many northern Thais.

Thailand regards Burmese Shan who seek refuge in Thailand as illegal immigrants, and with few exceptions prohibits them from living in the camps.

In 2002, Thailand's increasingly vigilant effort to deport undocumented workers included the Shan.

Most Shan settle in the farms and orchards of Thailand's northernmost provinces, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son. According to NGOs, there are at least two unofficial Shan refugee camps in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. Shan resistance forces protect both camps, which literally straddle the border. Fighting in Shan State during 2002 increased the population of these camps.

In May, some 600 Shan fled fighting in Burma and entered Thailand at Chiang Mai Province. The Thai government permitted them to remain in a temple compound in the area, where they were assisted by the BBC , the Burmese Relief Center, and UNICEF. At year's end, about 370 persons from this group remained at the temple.

No firm figure exists for the total number of Shan who have entered Thailand seeking protection as refugees. A 2001 report by the Burmese Refugee Committee estimated that some 300,000 Shan reside in Thailand, half of whom fled forced relocation campaigns in central Shan State. UNHCR, which has not been given access to the Shan population in Thailand, acknowledges that the majority would likely be considered refugees prima facie.

In the absence of protection for Shan in Thailand, and given the persecution of Shan in Burma, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) counts as refugees the estimated 150,000 Shan in Thailand who fled forced relocation.

Burmese in Refugee-Like Circumstances

As many as 2 million other Burmese live and work in Thailand without documentation. Some work as day laborers on farms, but most work in cities – in construction sites, factories, restaurants, and private homes. USCR believes that no fewer than 250,000 of these Burmese may have fled human rights violations.

In 2001, Thailand initiated a registration program for such undocumented workers, which allowed temporary stay. Although some 450,000 Burmese registered, many other Burmese were deterred from registering by the relatively high fee required and by concerns for their security, and Thailand has refused to re-open the registration period. At the same time, the government began a campaign of harassment, arrests, and deportation of those who did not register.

Thailand supplies the Burmese military with lists of potential deportees in advance for their approval. The deportees are sent back through a reception center for returnees at Myawaddy, opposite the Thai city of Mae Sot. This new process began in early 2002 and contrasts with the past practice of releasing deportees at unofficial crossing points along the border.


UNHCR reported that 48 refugees from Laos remained in Thailand at year's end. Of those, 14 were urban cases, while 34 lived in Ban Napho camp in Nakhon Phanaom, in Thailand's northeast, where some 40,000 Laotian refugees formerly resided.

In March 2001, UNCHR submitted voluntary repatriation applications to the Lao government for the Ban Napho population, as the residents had declined to apply for resettlement in other countries. 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. At the end of 2002, UNCHR said it was no longer expecting a response from Laos and had therefore made an official request to Thailand for the local integration of the refugees, the vast majority of whom were born in Thailand.

USCR considers more than 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 fled from the UNHCR-run refugee camps for Laotians in the early and mid-1990s to avoid repatriation to Laos. Many also rejected an offer of resettlement in the United States. For these reasons, UNHCR decided that they were no longer in need of protection and has had no contact with the group since they left the camps. Because of these facts and because their numbers and even their nationality is in doubt, USCR considers them to be people in a refugee-like situation rather than refugees.

Thailand regards the group as economic migrants and has periodically threatened to deport them. In September, however, the Thai military announced plans to relocate some 1,200 Hmong from the monastery to Tak Province in early 2003, after which it would seek funds to relocate the remaining Hmong either to the Ban Napho camp or to military-owned forested areas in northern Thailand. The relocations were proposed because of overcrowding, drug problems, and illegal labor. Military officials said the first 1,200 to be relocated would be Hmong who had helped the military battle communist insurgents.

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