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Karen Refugees’ Rights Fall by the Wayside in Thailand

In Chiang Mai, a province of northern Thailand, jungle excursions to see Karen hill tribe villages are a popular tourist attraction. However, these excursions fail to provide a full and accurate picture of the Karen people, whose struggle to survive has been called a “forgotten story” by CNN.

There are 148,000 refugees living in the nine Karen and Karenni refugee camps in Thailand. These refugees have been displaced from their native Burma by military attacks on civilians. At risk of persecution and loss of life they’ve sought safety in Thailand.

But Thailand is struggling to deal with the large number of refugees and in some cases has turned to unethical means to handle the camps. The most common reports involve the forced repatriation of Karen refugees. In July, Thai security forces in the Mae Hong Son province returned 35 refugees to Burma. These refugees were of a group of 280 that arrived in April after a major Burmese military attack. Thai security forces have threatened the remaining 245 recent arrivals with forced repatriation.

The Thai government has failed to prevent these forced repatriations despite the fact that these proceedings violate international refugee law. When repatriation risks persecution or endangerment of the refugee’s life, it is illegal to force or induce refugees to return home.

The situation is also worsened by problems with the Thai government’s official refugee registration system, which has been overwhelmed and unable to register new refugees. Without official registration, refugees are not entitled to housing and food or official protection from the United Nations. There are an estimated 20,000 unregistered Karen living in the refugee camps.

“The root causes of why people flee Burma haven’t changed, but states such as Thailand continue to turn a blind eye to serious abuses while continuing to do business with the Burmese government,” says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Thailand should raise concern about Burmese human rights violations that cause forced displacement as well as [respond] humanely to its victims seeking asylum at their borders and in their territories.”

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