By Zach Hudson
In my current work at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, I am focusing on issues of forced displacement—in particular, refugees forcibly displaced in response to conflict. I’m interested in Thailand as a focus area in part because it hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Most of the refugees in Thailand are residents of nine different camps in four provinces along the border with Burma [Myanmar]. The populations residing in these camps are mostly Burmese ethnic minorities who have fled various waves of the conflict in Burma. Many have lived in the camps for almost two decades, while many others have actually been born and grown up entirely within the walls of the camp.
Following a coup in Thailand in May 2014, the new military government in Thailand suggested that refugees living in camps along the Thai/Burma border would soon be returned home as Burma stabilizes following peace processes. Activists have reported that when they and various other international actors reacted strongly by criticizing this announcement, the Thai authorities then clarified that any action taken would not be immediate, but would reflect conditions on the ground in Burma.
Many reports have suggested that conditions in Burma are still not conducive to the return of camp residents. While the peace process is ongoing, there are still many areas in Burma where armed conflict between government forces and non-state actors continues unabated. Even where conflict has ceased, there are continual risks of violence against ethnic minorities. Returning refugees would also face the threat of persistent anti-personnel landmines located in many areas along the border. Furthermore, in many cases, the land that once belonged to these refugees is now mined—making it dangerous to access and often worthless in value as a place to rebuild a home or grow food. Even large areas of non-mined land that once belonged to these refugees have now been confiscated by the Myanmar government. Finally, the provision of social services in the areas of return are often non-existent or limited as convergence of government services/regulation schemes and the former informal service provision structures that existed during the conflict are slowly integrated.
Article 33 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee, and its application through the convention’s 1967 Protocol, prohibits expulsion or return of refugees—called refoulement— “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” While Thailand has not joined this convention, many would argue that non-refoulement is a principle of customary international law by which Thailand is nevertheless bound. In fact, non-refoulement has often been cited as an example of jus cogens—a fundamental, overriding principle of international law from which no derogation is ever permitted.
Thailand’s indication that it may begin involuntary repatriation of camp residents back to Burma should not be taken lightly. In the past, Thai authorities have forcibly removed other communities of non-nationals living in the country—many of whom had been born in, or lived in, Thai camps for decades previous to sudden overnight expulsion.
Even if current refugees of the camps living along the Thai/Burma border are not technically forcibly removed, there are other ways by which Thai authorities are coercing these populations into a constructive return. International donor funding is beginning to shift from camp support to efforts directly within Burma as the peace process unfolds. Many NGOs presently operating from Thailand are now also adding offices or even relocating to Yangon or other areas within Burma. As this shift takes place, funding and support activities for the camps shrink. Thailand is not then supplementing this lost funding or programming, and simultaneously is not allowing camp residents to work or find other ways to support themselves. In fact, frequently the camps are essentially closed to both in and out movement. The result of this stranglehold effect is that refugees are for all intents and purposes being forced to involuntarily repatriate.
At the Center, we are excited to explore many of these issues over the coming months as we learn more about the situation in Thailand and Burma and how various international human rights frameworks might apply in the refugee context.
Zach Hudson is the Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.