No quick fixes for plight of refugees

No quick fixes for plight of refugees

Today marks World Refugee Day, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with the US and British embassies in Bangkok, Chao Phraya Express Boat and Tha Maharaj Lifestyle Mall are holding a series of understandably modest but well-intentioned activities to commemorate the lives and achievements of those often forcefully displaced from their home nations.

These activities should be a reminder that the huge scale of the Covid-19 pandemic must not be used as an excuse to forget about the scores of refugees currently sitting on our doorstep, fearful for their futures and unable to return home.

Although skirmishes between the Tatmadaw -- the local term for the Myanmar military -- and the Karen National Liberation Army on Myanmar's eastern border with Thailand gained coverage in the immediate aftermath of the military's seizure of power on Feb 1 this year, the conflict dates back at least to January with the ethnic minority claiming the Myanmar military had attacked villagers to drive them from what has historically been their rightful territory.

Figures provided by the Karen Peace Support Network claim that up to 70,000 ethnic people or 90% of population living along Myanmar eastern border were displaced by conflict in the three months to June.

As violence has intensified, many remain stranded along the banks of the Salween River, with no shelter or access to food and healthcare.

Thousands tried to enter Thailand in March, but most were ordered to return "home" by the Thai authorities in April despite air raids by Myanmar military, according to human rights groups monitoring the situation.

Thailand's unwillingness to initiate any action that might displease a Myanmar regime known for its close military ties with the kingdom, has also not gone without comment. Journalists in the region who are covering the situation allege the Thai military has denied them permission to conduct interviews with Karen villagers fleeing from airstrikes, while relief groups say Thai authorities in Mae Sam Laep in Mae Hong Son province initially blocked efforts to transport aid to the refugees.

Meanwhile, the pushback has left thousands of Karen villagers vulnerable to what they believe are retaliatory attacks on their homes and farms, forcing them to seek shelter in caves or nearby jungle areas, which, regardless of the threat of violence, also pose a risk to their health and safety.

Yet organisations which are supposed to be intrinsic to solving the multi-faceted nature of the problems faced by those caught up in a conflict they neither instigated nor have the leverage to end, were only last week accused of misusing information collected under the pretext of providing vital humanitarian supplies.

Despite hosting World Refugee Day events, it is the UNHCR itself which is alleged to have improperly shared personal details taken while processing ethnic Rohingya refugees with Bangladesh, which then used that information in collaboration with Myanmar authorities to verify targets for possible repatriation, according to Human Rights Watch.

The UNHCR rejected these allegations, which would be in contravention of its own data protection policy, and insists the refugees were fully aware that answering the questions was not mandatory to apply for a smart card which increases access to aid, and that some information would be shared for resettlement purposes.

Whether accurate or not, these accusations highlight just how vulnerable groups of people displaced by war, violence and persecution can be in foreign lands, where they are unfamiliar with the language, have little money and face an often-hostile local reaction to their presence.

Covid-19 has taught many of us just how quickly health, livelihoods and mental well-being can unravel when the intricately woven fabric that holds our existence together suffers a nick.

For many in the West, the last time a tsunami of horror of comparable size swept through their nations was World War II, more than 70 years ago, with only the very elderly still having memories of air raid sirens, rations and bomb shelters.

So while we wait in line for our Covid-19 vaccinations, and pray that one day soon our lives might return to something resembling the normality we took for granted just two years ago, perhaps we should also spare a thought for those who are waiting for a lot more than a shot in the arm to cure the wreckage of their uprooted lives and make it safe for them to return to their towns, their jobs, their farms or their schools once more.

If Covid has taught the world anything, let's hope it's that in this day and age suffering of any kind caused by the negligence of leaders and those in positions of responsibility must end, no matter what one's creed or colour may be.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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