Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conditions must be right for refugees to go

Published: 14/04/2011 at 12:00 AM

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Thailand plans to close all 9 refugee camps along its border with Burma and send some 140,000 refugees home. No deadline was given, but a top official said it is time for refugees who have been in Thailand for more than two decades, to return to their own country.
Boredom is a problem for refugees at Mae La camp, 60km north of Mae Sot on the border with Burma.
Having worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for more than 30 years on three continents, I can say this is a goal the UN refugee agency shares.
Refugee camps are not a natural place for anyone to spend their entire life.
When refugees exist for decades without being allowed to work, are forced to accept hand-outs to survive, and live in tiny shelters, they risk losing their dignity.
Social problems can arise: violence against girls and women, drug use, alcohol abuse.
So the UN refugee agency is the first to say we would like to close refugee camps. This would be the natural outcome once all the refugees are resettled or go back voluntarily according to international standards - above all when conditions are right at home.
Thailand - from the national government to the smallest village - has a well-known record of providing refuge to more than a million who fled war and persecution since the Indochinese crisis in the mid-1970s.
Wai Zar, 36, chats with UNHCR staff. Wai Zar stepped on land mines twice in Burma. He has made his own prosthesis from bamboo cane.
Along the Burmese border, NGOs supported by generous donors have magnanimously fed and sheltered refugees since the mid-1980s, taking care of them well before UNHCR was allowed to work in the camps.
Thanks also to countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and others, nearly 70,000 Burmese refugees from the camps in Thailand have had a chance to start new lives in resettlement countries since 2005.
For those still in the camps who want to go back to Burma - and there are many - the country they go home to needs to be peaceful. They can then go home voluntarily, in safety and dignity.
Over the decades, UNHCR has taken millions of refugees back to their homes, and there are ways we and our sister UN agencies can help Thailand and Burma prepare for the day when conditions will be right for the Burmese refugees to go home.
The UN and non-governmental organisations can help remove the vast number of land mines laid by all sides that make farming or just walking through the jungle a life-threatening gamble. This is absolutely vital to the safety of returnees.
A boy peers out of the window of his shelter at Mae La refugee camp.
Our goal is not just to take the refugees home, but to make sure they stay home and do not have to flee again. With this aim, in many countries UNHCR does things in advance like build water points and refurbish schools so that refugees will have the basics to restart their lives. Once they go home, UNHCR should have access to monitor their welfare regularly.
Within the camps in Thailand, UNHCR and its partners already offer skills training so that refugees will be able to make a living back home, or in resettlement countries.
The excitement on the faces of refugees when they escape the boredom of monotonous days in the camp to learn how to use a computer, cut hair or take care of babies and elderly people is contagious.
For refugees with their hearts set on going back to Burma, we help them keep their farming skills alive. Impressively, some of the farmers are landmine victims who don't let the loss of both arms, a leg, or their eyesight slow them down.
In short, we are already doing much to prepare refugees for the day - whenever it is - that they can go home. We stand ready to help lay the groundwork for potential voluntary returns in safety and dignity inside eastern Burma also.
What is needed on a global scale is for the international community to engage the new national and regional authorities in Burma to promote appropriate conditions for a voluntary return in safety and dignity. Only when the refugees feel that Burma is truly safe, that they will not risk their lives by going back, will they want to go home. And when that day comes, UNHCR will be ready to help both Thailand and Burma with a genuinely voluntary repatriation.
Jean-Noel Wetterwald is UNHCR Regional Co-ordinator for Southeast Asia.