At the end of 1999, Thailand hosted more than 158,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority from Burma. More than 13,000 were from Laos, while much smaller numbers were from Cambodia (109), Vietnam (45), and other countries (191). An additional estimated 350,000 Burmese were living in Thailand in refugee-like circumstances.

In 1999, more than 36,000 Cambodians repatriated from Thailand, leaving no Cambodian refugee camps on Thai soil for the first time since the 1970s.

Thailand's record as a refugee-hosting country remained mixed and controversial. Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, but it continued allowing Burmese refugees to enter in 1999. Yet, Thailand initially denied admission to many new refugees, permitting them to enter only when their lives were at immediate risk.

In July, the Thai foreign ministry said it was studying the possibility of acceding to the UN Refugee Convention. Senior ministry officials said that while the signing might not occur in the near future, the study was "a good first step."

Refugees from Burma

At the end of the year, more than 116,000 ethnic minority Burmese – mostly Karen – lived in camps just inside the Thai border. Another 7,000 were living unofficially outside the camps. An estimated 20,000 ethnic Shan refugees from Burma were living in northern Thailand.

Thai-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to assist some 9,000 ethnic Mon who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand but whom the Thai authorities forcibly relocated to three "resettlement sites" inside Burma in 1996. The Mon feared the security situation in Burma and suffered from a lack of cultivatable land. The Thai Ministry of Interior (MOI) approved a fifth year of support for this population, but the Burmese Border Consortium (BBC) – a coalition of NGOs providing assistance to the refugees – planned again to reduce the amount of assistance to encourage them to become self-sufficient.

Until the early 1990s, Burmese refugees in Thailand lived relatively quietly in small camps assisted by NGOs. Although the Thai authorities did not permit the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the camps, there were no significant security concerns. In the mid-1990s, however, Thailand toughened its policies toward Burmese refugees, while improving its relations with Burma's ruling military governments.

Despite human rights abuses by the Burmese military – including forced relocation, forced porterage, and forced labor – Thailand allowed entry only to Burmese who were "fleeing fighting." In 1998, Thailand said it would expand the standard to include persons fleeing "the effects of civil war." In an October 1999 speech before the UNHCR executive committee, a high-ranking Thai official said his country remained willing to shelter people displaced by political instability or military conflict. According to UNHCR, the Thai authorities' interpretations of the criteria varied from one provincial admissions board to another in 1999.

Since 1996, Burmese troops and insurgents associated with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a group that broke away in 1995 from the predominantly Christian Karen National Union (KNA), have attacked and burned Burmese refugee camps in Thailand.

In 1998, NGO and Thai officials said they planned to relocate vulnerable camps to a safer distance from the border. The relocations finally occurred in October and November 1999, when nearly 8,000 residents of Wangka and Mawker camps (71 percent of the population) moved to Umpium camp in Tak Province.

NGOs believed that some of the 3,000 "missing" refugees returned to Burma to "test the waters," while others remained in Thailand but outside the camps.

The situation for Shan refugees from Burma, who are ethnically related to northern Thais, remained particularly difficult during the year. With minor exceptions, Thailand did not permit the Shan to live in camps. This policy forced the Shan to join the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented and therefore "illegal" migrants in Thailand. While no reliable estimates exist of the number of Shan in Thailand, about 20,000 Shan who were clearly refugees entered Thailand in recent years.

The Shan Human Rights Foundation reported continued Shan refugee arrivals in Thailand during 1999, claiming that as many as 14,000 arrived in Fang District alone and that more than 100,000 had arrived since 1996.

Information on forced returns to Burma was sketchy. UNHCR did not have reports of Burmese refugees being forcibly repatriated in 1999 but could not exclude the possibility that refugees were among the thousands of Burmese "illegal migrants" (mostly Shan but also including pro-democracy activists) deported during the year.

Moreover, it remained difficult for refugees to enter Thailand in the southern provinces, guarded by Thailand's restrictive ninth army division. In several cases, army officials "convinced" Burmese to return home, without giving UNHCR the opportunity to verify the voluntariness of the return.

In July, more than 90 Karen refugees who had fled recent fighting agreed to return to Burma after spending two months in a transit center. UNHCR witnessed the return from the Thai side of the border.

In 1998, UNHCR and the Thai government reached a preliminary agreement on a formal protection role for UNHCR at the Burma border. Until that time, UNHCR had been officially on the sidelines, albeit with an unofficial monitoring presence. The agreement was largely implemented in 1999.

In July, a Thai foreign ministry spokesperson said that it was "only a matter of time" before the Burmese refugees would be repatriated. He predicted the return would be completed within three years, adding that the situation in Burma had returned to normal and Burma was ready to welcome back the refugees. By year's end, however, large-scale repatriation had not begun.

NGOs grew wary in the fall when Thai officials, in consultation with UNHCR, developed a system for processing new arrivals. Under the plan, "reception centers" were built in many camps to hold new arrivals, with the intention that the MOI and UNHCR would then interview the arrivals and present their recommendations to new "provincial admissions boards." Elements of the new process were applied in many camps but, by the end of the year, it had not become a systematic process.

NGOs were concerned by the "erratic" decisions of some admissions boards (although, by the end of the year, no rejected applicants had been returned). In addition, some agencies questioned access to the reception centers – along with conditions, length of stay, and transfer policies. Although at least five reception centers were established, their function varied from camp to camp.

In its new role, UNHCR witnessed the provincial-level admissions process. It was generally able to attend sessions of the admissions boards and to present its views, but the weight afforded these views was uncertain. Thailand gave UNHCR access to asylum seekers and refugees inside the camps but did not systematically grant access to new arrivals at the border.

According to border-based assistance agencies, the refugee population in the camps officially peaked at nearly 120,000 in September, higher than the year-end figure. The year-end figure, however, may underestimate the number because it likely omits the "missing" refugees from the camp relocation and "no shows" during the UNHCR/MOI registration. The likelihood, said these agencies, was that those refugees were still in Thailand. Because camps were relatively easy to enter and leave, refugees came and went throughout the year. Those leaving the camps usually did not leave Thailand. Therefore, the total number of Burmese refugees in Thailand probably increased during the year.

Heavy floods during the year caused extensive damage in two camps, where houses and roads were washed away. One camp was virtually cut off for several months. UNHCR considered the lack of access a protection issue and provided funds to Thai authorities to upgrade the roads.

Thailand and NGOs cooperated in assisting Thai villages affected by refugee arrivals. In August, the ninth infantry division asked the BBC to support the relocation of more than 300 Karen villagers from Suan Durian, close to the Burmese border, to Pa Mak in Pranburi District. Suan Durian is a sensitive area where refugees have congregated since 1997 and where the Thai military has sometimes succeeded in convincing them to cross back into Burma. In late 1999, a number of Karen agreed to move. The BBC provided rice for the entire population in Pa Mak, including the original inhabitants.

Nearly 2,000 Burmese refugees were in Bangkok and other urban areas of Thailand at year's end. Most were former students and pro-democracy activists who fled to Thailand after the Burmese military junta crushed Burma's fledgling democracy movement in 1988. All were receiving UNHCR assistance. The majority of them, about 1,700, were legally residing in the Maneeloy Burmese Center (formerly called the "safe area") outside of Bangkok. Many of these were awaiting third-country resettlement. While ethnic Burmans constituted the majority of residents in the center, other ethnic groups were also represented.

In February, Thailand admitted 890 Burmese refugees into Maneeloy. All had mandate refugee status from UNHCR and had been awaiting entry into the center.

In October, relations between Thailand and Burma became strained following a siege of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok by five armed Burmese dissidents. They stormed the embassy and held 38 persons hostage for 25 hours, before Thai officials allowed them to flee by helicopter. Concerned with the security implications, Thailand subsequently imposed strict rules on the movements of Burmese pro-democracy dissidents, including the Maneeloy residents. Thailand urged UNHCR to speed up efforts to resettle the refugees in third countries.

The Burmese government, angered by Thailand's decision to allow the embassy attackers to flee, closed the border with Thailand for nearly eight weeks. The closure, occurring during a heavy Burmese offensive against the Karen, prevented an unknown number of Burmese from fleeing to Thailand.

Hundreds of thousands of other Burmese lived and worked in Thailand without documentation in 1999. Many may have gone to Thailand for reasons similar to those of the Burmese who were considered refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimated that 350,000 Burmese were living in refugee-like circumstances in Thailand at the end of the year.

(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. The rebels demanded that Thailand provide medical care to other members of their group and open the border to more refugees. The ten gunmen were killed when Thai security forces stormed the hospital. The incident further strained border relations between the two countries.)

Refugees from Cambodia

More than 36,000 Cambodians repatriated from Thailand during 1999. Of those, nearly 25,000 returned with UNHCR assistance, while about 11,000 returned spontaneously. UNHCR had no reports of forced returns of Cambodian refugees, although concerns sometimes surfaced about the voluntariness of their choice of destination inside Cambodia.

The 1999 repatriation involved two major groups: those loyal to Prince Ranariddh, who fled after Hun Sen ousted him in a 1997 coup; and former Khmer Rouge guerrillas and their dependents, most of whom fled to Thailand in 1998. The Ranariddh supporters were mostly in Thailand's Surin and Trat provinces, while the Khmer Rouge-affiliated group was largely in Sisaket Province.

Because the Khmer Rouge-affiliated group feared government reprisals upon return, UNHCR did not include them in the first phase of its 1998 repatriation. However, efforts to return them gained steam in early January 1999, after the Christmas Day defection of two Khmer Rouge leaders.

Soon after the repatriation resumed, UNHCR became concerned that the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders – known to have infiltrated the Thai camps – were coercing refugees to return to their former base at Anlong Veng despite their wishes to go elsewhere. For that reason, the agency briefly slowed the repatriation. A February 1999 UNHCR investigation revealed that some coercion had likely taken place. At year's end, however, UNHCR told USCR that the returnees had the freedom to choose their final destination and were not coerced to returning to potentially unsafe areas.

On March 24, UNHCR completed the organized repatriation of Cambodians from Thailand. At that time, 300 to 500 Cambodians remained in urban areas of Thailand, although all of the camps had been closed. Between October 1997 – when the most recent repatriation began – and March 1999, UNHCR facilitated, directly or indirectly, the return of some 47,000 Cambodians from Thailand.

The Cambodian government encouraged the repatriation and cooperated with UNHCR and NGOs in helping the returnees reintegrate.

In May, a group of Cambodians remaining in Thailand staged a protest after UNHCR denied their repeated requests for refugee status. The agency said it deemed the situation in Cambodia safe for their return. The group, Ranariddh supporters, said they feared reprisals by Hun Sen loyalists.

Refugees from Laos

UNHCR reported that 117 refugees from Laos (all highland Lao) remained in Thailand at the end of 1999.

At the end of the year, at least 13,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, who had fled from the refugee camps in recent years to avoid repatriation, remained at a Buddhist monastery about 50 miles (80 km) outside Bangkok. In recent years, USCR reported the number to be about 10,000. The Thai government registered 13,000 Hmong living in the monastery in 1997, although some observers believed the number was much higher. UNHCR had no contact with the group and did not regard them as refugees. Thailand viewed them as economic migrants or Hmong fighters and threatened to deport them, but Laos refused to accept them. Laos said they were members of an anti communist movement and that their places of birth were unknown. Thailand conducted the registration in part to confirm their national origin and subsequently asked Laos to reconsider accepting them.

Following the forced return of some non-refugee Hmong from Ban Napho camp, the Hmong at the monastery expressed renewed fears of forced return. Given the uncertainty of their status, USCR continued to count them as asylum seekers in 1999.

In July, Thai and Lao authorities reached an agreement to repatriate the remaining 1,346 residents of Ban Napho camp in northeastern Thailand by the end of the year. The residents of Ban Napho – the last Indochinese refugee camp in Thailand – included about 180 persons, mostly Hmong, who had been determined to be refugees under the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA). Most were awaiting resettlement approval from third countries. Many, however, had been rejected for resettlement on criminal or health-related grounds. The agreement specified that all those without refugee status would be returned to Laos.

Laos had previously refused to accept the return of the Ban Napho population, citing the group's refusal to return voluntarily and the prospect that they were "hardened battle veterans" who supported anti-government insurgency inside Laos.

In announcing the agreement, Thai officials said that voluntary repatriation would be the first option but, if necessary, "alternatives recognized as being acceptable under international practice would be examined."

Hmong exiles, veterans groups, and politicians in the United States protested the decision, saying returnees faced mistreatment by the Lao authorities. Nevertheless, in September, Thailand and UNHCR repatriated the first group of 282 Laotians from Ban Napho. UNHCR said none of the returnees were refugees. Some 162 of the returnees signed forms confirming their willingness to return across the border, UNHCR added, while the rest were forcibly repatriated. The return, said UNHCR, took place in accordance with the CPA.

UNHCR provided an assistance package, including household items, basic tools, and a cash stipend, to the returnees. Truck convoys carried the returnees to the banks of the Mekong River, where they were put aboard ferries. They were met on the Lao side, in Thakhek, by Lao government officials and UNHCR representatives.

The final group was repatriated in mid-December, leaving 117 Laotians in Ban Napho, all of whom had refugee status and were still seeking resettlement. UNHCR said they could not stay in Thailand indefinitely. Because most had been rejected by their resettlement country of choice, UNHCR said it would approach "smaller resettlement countries."

(In February 2000, a final group of 181 Lao refugees returned to their home villages from the Nasaat transit camp in Laos, which had been receiving refugees from Thailand's Ban Napho camp since September 1999. All 181 returned to villages in the Pak Nguem District. The return marked the end of a ten-year effort by UNHCR and the Thai government to repatriate the refugees.)


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