Handle Myanmar influxes with care
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Handle Myanmar influxes with care

'Preparedness" and "humane response" offer keywords for handling the various mass influxes from Myanmar. Those influxes might range from civilians in search of refuge to fighters ("combatants") in flight, all the more poignant today because of the armed conflagration in that country and the precarious border situation.

In retrospect, Thailand already has a lot of experience about what to do and what not to do, and the lessons from the past can guide preferred pathways to the future. Of note is that while there is a tendency among Thai authorities to avoid the term "refugees", that term is understood internationally to cover persons fleeing from their home country over a well-founded fear of persecution. In practice, this can encompass persons fleeing warfare.

A key international rule is that they should not be pushed back into areas of danger ("non-refoulement") and that they should benefit from international protection offered by the international community due to the lack of national protection from the country of origin.

There are some five different groups of entrants now at stake.

The first caseload is some 90,000 refugees from Myanmar who have been here for over three decades. They are mainly from ethnic groups who escaped the conflict with the authorities and are now in nine camps along Thailand's western border. Generally, they are not pushed back ("refouler") and are afforded safety in this country. They benefit from registration and documentation in the camps, thus enjoying a degree of transparency and protection through identification.

They are not detained as illegal immigrants under the national immigration law unless they venture outside the camps without permission. However, they are still not allowed to work in Thailand. There is a trickle of cases for third-country resettlement, but voluntary repatriation is not possible due to the intransigent situation in Myanmar, while local settlement in Thailand is not yet an available option.

For this group, the preferred pathway should be to ensure that the various documents concerning their status are better recognised and their access to education and other basics of life should be improved. More importantly, they should be allowed to work, instead of languishing in the camps, having little access to productive activities.

The second group is the Rohingya refugees. This Muslim group is mainly from Rakhine state in Myanmar and they are part of a longstanding exodus from Myanmar. The persecution they face includes the prevention of births, the blocking of freedom of movement and the non-recognition of their status resulting in statelessness. In their escape, many have been victims of trafficking and smuggling. While the biggest influxes have gone to Bangladesh, a small group have traveled through Thailand in search of refuge. In recent years, a number of those arriving by sea were pushed back out to sea instead of being granted temporary refuge. Regrettably, today several hundred (including children) are in immigration detention. This is in spite of the MoU which Thailand adopted several years ago to end the detention of children in immigration cases. A current need is thus to enable them to have access to safety and be freed from immigration detention. A possible breakthrough might be to enable the Muslim community here to help shelter them, at least as a temporary solution.

The preferred pathway for this group is to apply better parts of the policy already adopted for the first group of 90,000 refugees mentioned above, to benefit the Rohingya. Thus, the principle of no push-back should be abided by. There should be a guarantee to safety, temporary refuge free from immigration detention as well as documentation, assistance and protection and avenues to various solutions, such as third-country resettlement. Interestingly, a large number of Rohingya have found livelihoods in the Middle East and this can be explored further.

The third group is the tens of thousands who sought refuge in Thailand from 2021 to 2023 after the coup in Myanmar at the beginning of 2021. Many came from ethnic groups, displaced by warfare. The situation on this side of the fence was that they were housed in some 15 temporary safety areas run by the armed forces. However, they have been shifted back to Myanmar. The lesson learned from this group is that the principle of no push-back should have been respected more effectively, with more transparent documentation, access to assistance and protection, and strengthened temporary refuge, pending other solutions.

Currently, there is a fourth group at stake: those who are or might be arriving this year in the midst of the heavy fighting in Myanmar. This is compounded by the fact that there are nearly 3 million internally displaced persons in that country, some of whom may need to cross the border to access safety. Preparedness and humane response would dictate that the authorities on this side of the fence should abide by the principle of no push-back, access to safety, documentation, protection and assistance and temporary refuge in the meantime.

The barometer for action should be based on respect for their safety and dignity. Administratively, the task of caring for them should be based on inter-agency cooperation to ensure shared responsibility with monitoring for transparency.

Finally, there is another group which might be arriving: fighters or combatants from the various protagonist groups in Myanmar. Since Thailand views itself as a neutral country, basic principles of neutrality guided by the age-old international law of neutrality come into play. Those combatants who come into Thai territory need to be disarmed on arrival. The wounded, sick and those who have laid down their arms need to be assisted and protected from attacks. They need to be kept away from the border, and there should be international access to monitor their well-being. Of course, no munitions should be offered or channelled from Thailand to the various warring factions.

In sum, various constructive practices in the past emanating from Thailand should be advanced, while opacity, neglect and negligence should be avoided. Commitment with foresight, based on buoyant leadership with policy and practice embedded in a spirit of humanity, would be much welcome.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He is currently a UN Special Rapporteur under the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva. He is the author of 'The Status of Refugees in Asia' (Oxford).

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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