Thursday, January 6, 2011
Deja vu is a French term meaning "already seen". Refoulement is also French, meaning "to force back". Upon receiving a report on Christmas Day that Thai authorities had just forced back 166 refugees to Burma, I knew that I had seen this before - at Christmas 2009 in fact.
An armed Thai soldier stands guard as Burmese refugees wait for food at a border police base in Mae Sot on Nov 9 last year. Before the year ended many of the refugees were forcibly sent back to Burma.
Indeed, only a year ago this weekend, a colleague and I had written an article in this newspaper decrying the Thai government's 2009 record on refugee protection. In late December 2009 - likewise seemingly calculated to coincide with the slowest week of the year - the army forcibly returned to Laos around 4,500 ethnic minority Hmong, among whom were 158 recognised refugees and many other asylum seekers.
A year later, only the facts had changed: the 166 refugees forcibly returned on Dec 25 had fled fighting in eastern Burma between the Burmese army and several ethnic minority armed groups. Of these refugees, 120 were women and children. They had taken refuge in Waw Lay village in Phop Phra district of Tak province, where authorities had likewise forced back at least 360 Burmese refugees on Dec 8, roughly 650 on Nov 17, and approximately 2,500 on Nov 10, 2010.
Along with the year-end symmetry, however, the human rights violations are the same. Everyone has the right to seek asylum, and those recognised as refugees have a right to not be sent back to fighting or persecution - the principle of non-refoulement.
The Thai government denied this right to the 166 people from Burma, all considered refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The fact that Thailand has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention makes no difference: like the prohibition against torture, non-refoulement is customary international law, meaning that it applies to all states regardless of their treaty obligations. Once again, Thailand has committed a clear and direct violation of international refugee law.
Despite the ugly precedent set a year earlier, this action still came as a shock, given that on Oct 7 the Thai Foreign Ministry had publicly denied any "plans to repatriate to Burma displaced persons after the [Burmese] elections". It was election day itself, Nov 7, when the first of roughly 20,000 refugees from Burma began to arrive in Thailand. And on Dec 6 - though after several incidents of refoulement had already occurred - Tak Governor Samart Loifa was quoted in this newspaper as stating that Thailand would not send refugees back as long as the fighting continued. This, sadly, was often not the case, for while most refugees have returned to Burma, many - like the 166 on Christmas - did so involuntarily. And the fighting has continued throughout.
My colleague and I concluded in our article a year ago that "Thailand's disregard for its international legal obligations should not go without a response by the international community", and I can only restate that now. UNHCR, which issued a statement in late December calling on Thailand to not forcibly return the 166, should condemn the action and reiterate its call vis-a-vis all refugees who remain in Thailand or may yet arrive. Embassies in Bangkok should do likewise, while countries on the UN Human Rights Council (which includes Thailand as a member and Thailand's ambassador to Geneva as its president) should also raise concerns about this violation.
Indeed, it is now too late for the 166 Burmese refugees who have been forcibly returned, just as it was in 2009 for the 158 Lao Hmong refugees. But given ongoing conflict in Burma, refugees from there will continue to cross the border during 2011. Thailand, regardless of which party is in power, must acknowledge and uphold its international legal obligations. Once is already once too often for human rights deja vu.
Benjamin Zawacki is Amnesty International's researcher on Thailand and Burma.