THA figures


Thailand hosted about 200,000 ethnic Shan from Myanmar who fled forced relocation and ethnic persecution, although the Royal Thai Government (RTG) did not recognize them as refugees. Nearly 145,700 refugees from Myanmar lived in camps, mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni, and about 50,000 other Myanmarese lived outside the camps, including other ethnic minorities and some political dissidents. Some 3,300 ethnic Rohingyas arrived but the RTG deported many of them and others went on to Malaysia. Some 7,800 Lao Hmong lived in the closed Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun Province with 150 more detained in Nong Khai. Many of them entered in 2005 (including a dozen girls who had escaped again after Thai authorities secretly deported them and a dozen others in December of that year) and about 1,000 of them relocated from Wat Tham Krabok.

Refugees living outside of camps did so as illegal immigrants or as participants in a restrictive migrant labor program. Some 500 to 600 North Koreans also entered the country, and authorities allowed some 140 to proceed on to South Korea in the first two months of the year.

Nearly 18,800 went to resettlement countries, three quarters of them to the United States, but about 2,000 more fled fresh fighting between the Myanmarese junta and rebels. The RTG blocked the resettlement of 20 ethnic Padaung "long-neck" refugees and forbade embassies from sending staff to interview any of the Lao Hmong held in Petchabun Province for resettlement.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

The RTG deported more than 71,500 for illegal entry, informally dropping them off at unofficial crossing points, including more than 32,500 Cambodians, nearly 25,400 Myanmarese – including about 100 camp-based refugees – and more than 13,600 Laotians. It often turned the Myanmarese over to members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a splinter group allied with the Myanmarese regime, which extorted bribes for their release. The RTG also deported thousands per year in more formal proceedings and, pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Myanmarese Government, gave the Myanmarese authorities lists of the deportees' names in advance. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reviewed the lists and, in many instances, was able to prevent the refoulement of those at risk of persecution, but not of camp-based refugees authorities caught outside the camps and repatriated informally.

In mid-January, Thailand deported 16 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers from Laos, giving UNHCR no opportunity to assess their cases. Lao authorities reportedly imprisoned them immediately upon arrival. At the end of January, authorities nearly deported some 150 more Hmong, all of whom UNHCR had recognized and other countries were considering resettling, in Nong Khai detention center near the border. Authorities permitted Lao government officials, including one soldier, who arrived with buses for the refugees' repatriation, to question and photograph them. Some 30 police put nearly 100 women and girls on buses, reportedly dragging some of them, but some men barricaded themselves in the center and threatened mass suicide. Reinforcements arrived but, after firing tear gas canisters into the center and failing to dislodge them, the Government called off the deportations and apologized to the Lao officials. In May, Thailand and Laos formally agreed to repatriate Hmong asylum seekers upon arrival and, that month, forced 31 back. In June, two Lao Hmong refugees in Khao Kor jail required hospitalization after reportedly poisoning themselves in fear of repatriation, although another report indicated that Thai officials beat them for refusing to sign papers consenting to return. Days later, Thai soldiers returned 163 Lao Hmong detainees, reportedly using tear gas and stun guns.

Thai authorities vowed to repatriate all of about 7,800 others in a closed camp in Petchabun Province in 2008, "no matter how many bullet wounds they have" and a Lao Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared they would continue to cooperate, "until the last Hmong from Laos are repatriated." In February 2008, the RTG repatriated 11 Hmong, claiming it was voluntary, but witnesses said soldiers visibly forced some of the original 12 onto the military vehicles. One woman with five children still in the camp escaped and went into hiding. Members of four families on the same list of persons supposedly willing to return denied that they had volunteered and said they feared for their safety in Laos. In April, the RTG repatriated another 67 to Laos, again claiming that they had volunteered, but the Government of Laos insisted that it allow no independent parties to monitor the process.

In March 2007, the RTG deported 133 Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar to DKBA-held territory. Prior to that, authorities would briefly detain those they caught along the southern coast and deport them informally to cease-fire zones near Mae Sot where, for about $700, brokers would take them to Malaysia. After March, the Government carried out deportations directly from Ranong and other towns in southern Thailand but in July and August deported 150 Rohingya from Tak Province. In August, however, they deported another group of 20 to safer, ethnic Mon-inhabited areas of Myanmar in the south.

Maintaining that arrival at the airport did not qualify as entry into Thai territory, the Government deported 15 refugees and asylum seekers from Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia, including children, between April and June.

In March, authorities denied UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access to Ban Mae Surin refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province – containing more than 3,700 mostly ethnic Karenni refugees – stating they could not assure their safety. This followed fighting in Myanmar, just 1.8 miles (3 km) away that spilled over the border killing a Thai soldier. There were no plans to relocate the refugees. In April, the Myanmarese junta and its proxies fighting rebels nearby placed artillery and heavy machine guns on the hills just across the border overlooking Mae La camp in Tak Province, which held nearly 50,000 mostly ethnic Karen. Five mortar shells landed in Thailand. The RTG responded by moving hundreds of border patrol members to the area, ordering refugees to turn out all lights, generators, and candles at night, sparking fears of a cross-border incursion. The same month, in Mae Hong Son Province, authorities tightened security at the Ban Mae Lama Luang and Ban Mae La-oun camps containing about 30,000 refugees in anticipation of possible cross-border attacks.

In June, authorities prevented some 250 Karen refugees who crossed the Salween River, including many sick women and children, in two boats from landing. They said they were fleeing attacks on their villages by Myanmarese solders, but Thai authorities reportedly did not believe the attack was still going on because they could not hear gunfire.

In Mae Hong Son, authorities refused entry to about 400 Karenni refugees in July, reasoning that they were fleeing forced relocation, not fighting. In July, ten members of a Buddhist militia affiliated with the junta in Myanmar crossed the border in Tak Province and abducted a former Karen rebel, a naturalized Thai by marriage, and accused him of spying for the predominantly Christian rebels. An unknown group killed a Karen National Union leader and a fellow guerilla near the Mae La refugee camp in Tak Province. Also in July, authorities arrested more than 100 unregistered refugees in Mae La refugee camp in a pre-dawn raid. They released some women and children but deported 20. District officials said they were trying to prevent illegal entry during fighting in Myanmar and that there were 2,000 to 3,000 in the camp without approval.

In September, private tour operators reportedly kidnapped six ethnic Padaung refugees from Mae Hong Son to display them so tourists in Chiang Mai could see their long necks encased in brass coils and threatened them with death if they refused.

In December, members of the Or Sor militia operating under the authority of the Ministry of Interior shot and killed a 17-year-old ethnic Karenni refugee during a clash in Baan Nai Soi camp in Mae Hong Son Province. The night before, a student at a Sports Day dance had reportedly thrown a beer bottle at one of the Or Sor. The Or Sor then reportedly beat with brass knuckles another refugee student who required 10 stitches. In protest of the killing, refugees destroyed the Or Sor's station, two trucks, and some 30 motorcycles.

There were 65 to 70 documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps, mostly domestic.

Thailand was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and had no refugee law. Neither the interim Constitution the coup leaders promulgated in 2006 nor the August 2007 Constitution contained provisions for asylum. Refugees and asylum seekers had no legal status distinct from other foreigners and, under the 1979 Immigration Act, the presence of most of them was illegal. The Act provided for fines up to 20,000 baht (more than $630) and up to two years in prison for illegal entry, designated the Minister of the Interior (MOI) to enforce it, but gave the Minister authority, with Cabinet approval, to grant foreigners exemptions to stay in special cases. The Cabinet had not issued such approval, but the National Security Council had issued a resolution granting executive discretion. The RTG deemed that "persons fleeing fighting" could remain in Thailand as long as they stayed in the camps. Among the key functions of its "vision 1997 – 2006," MOI listed on its website, "To intercept and drive back refugees."

The RTG and UNHCR jointly registered refugees through Provincial Admissions Boards (PABs), which determined refugees' camp eligibility. Refugees received temporary "fleeing fighting" status if they fled at the time of fighting or "displaced person" status if they were fleeing persecution. Rejected applicants could file appeals with UNHCR within seven days, but the PAB did not give reasons for the initial denials. The PAB regularized the status of some 2,700 refugees but screening slowed in Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi provinces and completely ceased in Tak and Ratchaburi. In September, the RTG allowed UNHCR to resume registering and issuing receipt slips to new arrivals from Myanmar outside the camps, a process it had shut down in 2005, but these conferred no rights or legal status.

Authorities reportedly developed their own screening mechanism for some 8,000 Lao Hmong in Petchabun province but did not explain it to the public or UNHCR.

UNHCR adjudicated refugee status under its mandate for all non-Myanmarese nationals but in May the RTG ordered it to stop, reportedly in retaliation for its having given refugee status to some 152 Lao Hmong and North Koreans.

Detention/Access to Courts

Thai police routinely arrested and detained refugees living outside the camps for illegal residence and, by year's end, there were 161 refugees and asylum seekers at the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Bangkok. The IDC was overcrowded; it lacked ventilation, adequate sanitation, and medical services and quality food. In August, a North Korean reportedly died at the IDC. Refugees from border states could decide between voluntary deportation and indefinite detention. Refugees from other states generally had to remain in detention indefinitely until UNHCR could arrange for their resettlement.

In Nong Khai Province, Thailand detained 150 Hmong whom authorities nearly deported in January (see above) in two small cells without natural light or water other than from a bath. In August, they went on a hunger strike to protest but ended it when authorities allowed UNHCR and Australian embassy staff to see them. They remained in detention at year's end. Ranong Province authorities arrested and detained roughly 120 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar en route to Malaysia for illegal entry or trafficking in January and February. In March, police raided several homes in Mae Sot and arrested without charges nearly 600 Myanmarese, some in possession of paraphernalia of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, in order to prevent a demonstration against the Government of Myanmar.

In March, authorities arrested 52 North Koreans in Chiang Rai, charged them with illegal entry, and threatened to return them to North Korea. The detention facility in Bangkok for more than 300 North Korean women reportedly had only one toilet. The Mae Sai facility in Chiang Rai held 111 North Korean asylum seekers, more than double its capacity of 50, in June.

In July, authorities held about 120 Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers without UNHCR access, having rounded up several of them with UNHCR documentation in reported retaliation for Sri Lanka's deportation of 20 Thai sex workers the week before. In another raid, authorities arrested 42 at their apartment block including three refugee families from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Laos, as well as 23 Sri Lankan asylum seekers. Later they arrested seven Sri Lankans – four with refugee status and three asylum seekers.

In refugee camps, traditional justice systems operated independently of Thai and international law and imposed penalties including forced labor, fines, expropriation, detention, and expulsion. Some refugees complained that these did not protect weaker, less politically influential residents including women, the poor, and ethnic minorities. Camp leaders referred some violent crimes to representatives of ethnic opposition groups that acted as ad hoc appeal fora. The Karen and Karenni Education Departments punished pregnant girls and the boys involved and did not allow them to continue their schooling.

With UNHCR support, MOI issued some 88,200 official identity cards to camp-based refugees over age 12. UNHCR issued documents with photographs to all asylum seekers and refugees who applied at its offices and to each member of their families. None of these documents, however, constituted proof of legal presence in the country.

In December, authorities threatened to charge refugees for destroying property in response to the killing of a refugee in Ban Nai Soi Camp (see above) but brought no charges against the Or Sor who admitted to shooting the refugee. Authorities did remove the Or Sor from the camp and replaced them with soldiers and border patrol agents. Refugees said they would counter-claim for restitution for the killing.

The August 2007 Constitution's section on individual liberty was titled "Rights and freedoms of the Thai people."

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Refugees and asylum seekers could not freely move in Thailand, and needed written prior approval to enter or leave camps. Thai police frequently arrested refugees caught outside camps for illegal entry and deported them. Authorities restricted aid to camp residents and many participants in the migrant labor program (below) were refugees and enjoyed limited mobility.

In February, Mae Hong Son camp commander Wachira declared that ethnic Padaung (or "long-neck") refugees from Myanmar had three months to relocate to a village closer to the border or authorities would force them back into the camps. In January 2008, UNHCR accused the Government of blocking the resettlement of 20 of them for the past two years as tourists paid to see them confined in a "human zoo." Wachira's stated rationale was that they could not be refugees because regulations specified that refugees live in camps.

In June, Thailand's Third Army began relocating some 7,500 Lao Hmong who had integrated with Thais in Petchabun Province and placed them in a barbed-wire enclosed camp nearby with one access point controlled by the military. Several families escaped the camp in August and September, as repatriation threats intensified.

Refugees were not eligible for international travel documents except for resettlement.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Refugees and asylum seekers could not work legally but as many as 40 percent of those in the camps sought illegal employment outside of the camps. Of those in Mae Hong Song, the vast majority worked in agriculture nearby for between 41 and 60 baht ($1.30 and $1.90) per day and employers went to the guards to ask for workers. Refugees seeking employment outside the camp risked arrest, usually while in transport to work sites and police often demanded bribes for their release.

Nationals of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, including refugees, could register for a migrant labor program for specific employers in limited, generally low-wage, sectors in specified locations. Participants could not register as refugees and the RTG reported the names of those who participated to their governments. Fees for the permit and the medical exam were 3,800 baht (about $120) and the process required a minimum of five trips to Government offices. The MOL issued receipts for permit applications but employers generally kept the originals. To change employers, workers had to go through the process again with the new sponsor, but the former employer could block this by refusing to return the original registration. Workers could enroll in the health insurance system, but it did not cover their families. In April, authorities announced plans to limit renewals to migrants who verify their nationalities with their governments, making the program even more dangerous for Cambodian and Laotian refugees, but nearly impossible for Myanmarese refugees whose government would not participate. Registration dropped from 700,000 in 2006 to 500,000, 451,000 of them from Myanmar, by the June deadline with most of the remainder continuing to work illegally. Rather than allow refugees to work, the RTG intended to fill labor shortages with imported workers from Laos and Cambodia.

Registered migrant workers could not form or lead labor unions, but could join unions formed and led by Thais. Registered migrants became illegal and subject to deportation one week after losing employment and generally could not change jobs without the employers' permission. In 2006, provincial governments in the south, where a Muslim insurgency raged, imposed curfews, as well as bans on migrants gathering in groups of five or more, driving motorcycles, and possessing unregistered mobile phones. In March, the RTG extended the restrictions to other provinces. The Government also stopped issuing permits to stay to the spouses and children of migrant workers, placing some children at risk of shelters taking them away from their parents.

Thailand also did not allow refugees to obtain business licenses or to hold title to or transfer business premises, farmland, homes, or other capital assets.

Public Relief and Education

The RTG allowed NGOs to provide food, primary medical services, and housing to Myanmarese refugees, although it forbade concrete floors or public power supplies in camps. NGOs referred refugees to government services for secondary and tertiary conditions. Refugees who could register for the migrant labor program were eligible for public health services but authorities excluded them, with the exception of pregnant women, from anti-retroviral treatments available to Thais. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treated some HIV cases but the Government blocked foreign language informational broadcasts on HIV prevention as a "national security threat." Migrants had to pay for health insurance but could not always use it because of their restriction to remote areas and the fund for their benefits accumulated large surpluses.

Health workers in Mae Hong Son reported an increase in camp-based cases of psychosis, depression, and stress-related disorders over the past few years and inadequate treatment. In the summer, authorities mobilized 1,000 health workers and volunteers to deal with some 500 cases of severe diarrhea among migrants in Tak and the entry from Myanmar of many others with cholera in the four districts surrounding Mae Sot. The Mae Tao clinic in the border town of Mae Sot treated nearly 100,000 Myanmarese per year with international and local support.

Authorities limited access to about 7,800 Lao Hmong confined in a closed makeshift camp of bamboo structures in Petchabun to MSF, which supplied food, water, sanitation, and medical services. About one quarter of the camp population were children under five years of age but there were no schools in the camp nor could they attend local schools. MSF introduced mental health counseling in November to treat psycho-traumatic disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, pathological mourning of lost family, and anxiety-related depression, all aggravated by camp life and fear of return.

The RTG allowed UNHCR to monitor conditions in nine camps along the border but not to maintain a permanent presence in them. Thailand limited NGO access to camps to those the MOI approved, and journalists not registered with the MOI could not visit camps. Funding shortfalls compelled a 50 percent reduction in fish paste rations – the main source of protein for refugees in camps – in December.

In March, authorities declared Mae Hong Son Province – where four camps contain nearly 56,300 refugees – a disaster area when haze due to fires and/or weather patterns reached three times maximum healthy levels. UNHCR and other international agencies told their staff and their family members with respiratory problems to leave the area and drew up plans to evacuate all of them if the situation did not improve. There were no plans to evacuate any of the refugees.

USCRI Reports

  • USCR Welcomes U.S. Steps Aimed at Freeing (Press Releases)
  • USCR and Refugees International Write UN High Commissioner for Refugees Expressing Grave Concern about UNHCR Facilitation of Premature Repatriations of Myanmarese (Burmese) Refugees from Thailand (Press Releases)
  • USCRI to Assist Burmese Refugee Tsunami Victims in Southern Thailand (Press Releases)
  • UNHCR Awards USCRI and AILA Grant for the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children (Press Releases)

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