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Aid groups warn Thailand over repatriating Myanmar refugees

Aid groups have warned that the security and economic conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for mass repatriation, after Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha announced plans to return more than 120,000 Myanmar refugees.

TAK PROVINCE: Security has been increased at all refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, since army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha announced plans to return more than 120,000 Myanmar refugees. 

But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other aid groups have warned that the security and economic conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for a mass repatriation. 

A Thai foreign affairs statement has confirmed the government will work closely with the Myanmar military and international organisations like UNHCR to ensure the safe and successful repatriation of refugees.

Since the announcement, the Thai army has increased security patrols and checkpoints around refugee camps.

But Thai officials have been reluctant to speak on camera about the future prospects of the refugees.

Apart from the beefing up of security along the outer fences of the Ban Maela refugee camp, life still goes on as normal for the inhabitors inside. There is no visible sign that this will change anytime soon.

Besides shelter, the Thai government and international aid agencies have been providing refugees with food, healthcare and education. Mass repatriation could mean an end to these support mechanisms.

Karen doctor, Cynthia Maung, has been providing health and education services to these refugees for decades. She said the conditions in Myanmar are far from conducive for them to return en masse.

"Until now the ceasefire hasn't been guaranteed. Lots of community conflicts continue to happen because the rule and law do not protect the people. And there are lots of investments going on but there's no control, and land confiscation widespread,” said Dr Maung.

“If the camps closed down, people who stayed (in these camps) will not go back as refugees in the camp. They will want to go back to their homes, their villages. And they want to go and work as teachers or health workers or community leaders, and not as victims. "

Having fled political oppression and ethnic violence in Myanmar, these refugees have had little choice but to stay in the camps. With the help of UNHCR, some 90,000 refugees have settled into new lives in countries such as Australia and the US.

But the UNHCR said a mass repatriation will take time and must be voluntary and conducted in a safe and dignified manner.

Vivian Tan, senior regional public information officer at UNHCR, said: "For them to consider going back to the place they fled many years ago, where they were many security issues before, I mean that's a big step for them and the UNHCR has consistently advocated that they be given time to consider their options. We have to listen to what they want and not force or impose any decision on them."

Although no time frame has been set, news of repatriation plans has led to speculations that the Thai military would like to speed up the process. 

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