The young woman from Myanmar and her family now live amid the tall grasses of a riverbank on the Thai border, trapped in limbo between a country that does not want them and a country whose military could kill them

Jan 30 2023

By VICTORIA MILKO and KRISTEN GELINEAU

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The young woman from Myanmar and her family now live amid the tall grasses of a riverbank on the Thai border, trapped in limbo between a country that does not want them and a country whose military could kill them.

Like thousands of others fleeing mounting violence after a military takeover in Myanmar last February, Hay left her village for neighboring Thailand in search of a safe haven that does not exist. Returning to Myanmar would place her and her family at risk of death. And yet that is precisely what Thai authorities — wary of jeopardizing their relationship with Myanmar’s ruling military — tell them to do at least once a week, she says.

“When they told us to go back, we cried and explained why we can’t go back home,” says Hay, who lives in a flimsy tent on the Moei River, which divides the two countries. The Associated Press is withholding Hay’s full name, along with the full names of other refugees in this story, to protect them from retaliation by authorities. “Sometimes we cross back to the Myanmar side of the river. But I have not returned to the village at all.” Though international refugee laws forbid the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger, Thailand has nonetheless sent thousands of people who fled escalating violence by Myanmar’s military back home, according to interviews with refugees, aid groups and Thai authorities themselves. That has forced Hay and other Myanmar refugees to ricochet between both sides of the river as the fighting in their home villages rages and briefly recedes. “It is this game of ping-pong,” says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long been the main provider of food, shelter and other support to Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can’t keep going back and forth across the border. You’ve got to be somewhere where it’s stable.....And there is absolutely no stability in Myanmar at the moment.”

Since its takeover last year, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,700 people, arrested more than 13,000 and systematically tortured children, women and men. Thailand, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, insists Myanmar’s refugees return to their embattled homeland voluntarily. Thailand also insists it has complied with all international non-refoulement laws, which dictate that people must not be returned to a country where they would face torture, punishment or harm.

Despite risk of death, Thailand sends Myanmar refugees back

By VICTORIA MILKO and KRISTEN GELINEAU

April 8, 2022

Displaced people from Myanmar carry donated lunch boxes to their tents along the Thai side of the Moei River in Mae Sot, Thailand on Feb. 5, 2022. Thailand has sent thousands of people fleeing escalating violence by Myanmar’s military back home despite the risk to their lives, and despite international refugee laws that forbid the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger. They are now living in limbo, forced to ricochet between both sides of the river dividing the two countries as the fighting in their home villages rages and briefly recedes. (AP Photo)

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Displaced people from Myanmar carry donated lunch boxes to their tents along the Thai side of the Moei River in Mae Sot, Thailand on Feb. 5, 2022. Thailand has sent thousands of people fleeing escalating violence by Myanmar’s military back home despite the risk to their lives, and despite international refugee laws that forbid the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger. They are now living in limbo, forced to ricochet between both sides of the river dividing the two countries as the fighting in their home villages rages and briefly recedes. (AP Photo)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The young woman from Myanmar and her family now live amid the tall grasses of a riverbank on the Thai border, trapped in limbo between a country that does not want them and a country whose military could kill them.

Like thousands of others fleeing mounting violence after a military takeover in Myanmar last February, Hay left her village for neighboring Thailand in search of a safe haven that does not exist. Returning to Myanmar would place her and her family at risk of death. And yet that is precisely what Thai authorities — wary of jeopardizing their relationship with Myanmar’s ruling military — tell them to do at least once a week, she says.

“When they told us to go back, we cried and explained why we can’t go back home,” says Hay, who lives in a flimsy tent on the Moei River, which divides the two countries. The Associated Press is withholding Hay’s full name, along with the full names of other refugees in this story, to protect them from retaliation by authorities. “Sometimes we cross back to the Myanmar side of the river. But I have not returned to the village at all.”

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Though international refugee laws forbid the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger, Thailand has nonetheless sent thousands of people who fled escalating violence by Myanmar’s military back home, according to interviews with refugees, aid groups and Thai authorities themselves. That has forced Hay and other Myanmar refugees to ricochet between both sides of the river as the fighting in their home villages rages and briefly recedes.

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Despite risk of death, Thailand sends Myanmar refugees back

“It is this game of ping-pong,” says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long been the main provider of food, shelter and other support to Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can’t keep going back and forth across the border. You’ve got to be somewhere where it’s stable.....And there is absolutely no stability in Myanmar at the moment.”

Since its takeover last year, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,700 people, arrested more than 13,000 and systematically tortured children, women and men.

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Thailand, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, insists Myanmar’s refugees return to their embattled homeland voluntarily. Thailand also insists it has complied with all international non-refoulement laws, which dictate that people must not be returned to a country where they would face torture, punishment or harm.

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“As the situation on the Myanmar side of the border improved, the Thai authorities facilitated their voluntary return to the Myanmar side,” says Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tanee Sangrat. “Thailand remains committed and will continue to uphold its long-held humanitarian tradition, including the principle of non-refoulement, in assisting those in need.”

Somchai Kitcharoenrungroj, governor of Thailand’s Tak province, where thousands of people from Myanmar have sought refuge, said many crossed illegally when there was no fighting.

“We had to send them back as the laws said,” Somchai says. “When they faced the threats and crossed here, we never refused to help them. We provided them all basic needs according to the international human rights principle.”

“For example,” he added, “last week we also found some crossing here illegally and we sent them back.”

More than half a million people have been displaced inside Myanmar and 48,000 have fled to neighboring countries since the military’s takeover, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR says Thai government sources estimate around 17,000 Myanmar refugees have sought safety in Thailand since the takeover. But only around 2,000 are currently living on the Thai side of the border, according to the Thai-Myanmar Border Command Center. “UNHCR continues to strongly advocate that refugees fleeing conflict, generalized violence and persecution in Myanmar should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” the agency said.

Most of those fleeing clashes between the military and ethnic minority armed groups along the border must wade across the rivers dividing the two countries, belongings and babies balanced atop their shoulders. Those who reach Thailand are not allowed to settle in the decades-old refugee camps that dot the region and house 90,000 people who left Myanmar years before the takeover.

Instead, they have been relegated to crowded cattle sheds or rickety tents made of tarpaulin and bamboo. The moment there is a pause in fighting, refugees and aid groups say, Thai authorities send them back, despite Myanmar’s military taking over villages, burning homes and setting land mines.

“I have seen some of them being forced to get in a car, get off at the river, and cross over to the other side,” says Phoe Thingyan, secretary of Thai aid group the Overseas Irrawaddy Association.

In Myanmar’s border regions, ethnic minority armed groups have been fighting the central government for decades in a bid for greater autonomy, with more clashes after the military takeover. Despite some pauses, witnesses along the Thai border say the fighting there is now the worst it’s been in decades. At times, the gunfire, bombing and fighter jets have been audible from Thailand, and even houses on the Thai side of the river shake with the blasts.


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