Aid groups should start preparing for the voluntary repatriation of more than 100,000 Burmese refugees living along the Thai-Myanmar border, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday.
James Lynch, the UNHCR's regional representative, said legal, socio-political and logistical issues regarding repatriation should be discussed, even though the return of refugees to Burma has yet to begin, according to an article in The Bangkok Post.
“This is the first time for the refugees to think of the possibility of returning home,” Lynch said.
Among key issues to be considered are landmines, adequate, temporary shelter in Burma, and a lack of an effective cease-fire and peace agreements among some of the region's many ethnic groups.
Lynch said he hoped the UNHCR would be able to outline repatriation pre-requisites with the Thai and Burmese governments by next year.
He said the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which signed an agreement to gather basic information about displaced people, would begin their documentation later this year at Tham Hin camp in Ratchaburi, one of nine temporary shelters.
He said the Tham Hin profiling could be completed by April or May, and the information gathered will include a census of refugees' origins, skills and education.
Burmese officials should also come to Thailand to speak to refugees about their return, Lynch said, according to the Post.
He said Burma has set aside areas inside Kaya (opposite Mae Hong Son), Kayin (opposite Tak), and Mon (opposite Kanchanaburi) states for internally displaced persons as well as refugees.
Burmese authorities have also established garment factories to provide employment opportunities, he said.
At present, there are 84,000 registered and 67,000 unregistered refugees in nine Thai refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Some 78,000 people have been resettled to a third country, mostly to the United States, since the resettlement programme began in 2005.
The political process would need to ensure the safety and dignity of the returnees, Lynch said.
Mizzima reported in September that a Thai National Security Council official said the Burmese government had raised hopes that a repatriation process will take place, although the exact date is unknown.
One of the encouraging signs is that the Burmese government “is clearing landmines along the borders, preparing to build shelters and other infrastructure... to be ready within one year,” the NSC said in a statement, citing its Secretary-General Wichean Potephosree.
Wichean, who visited Naypyitaw in September, discussed the issue with Aung Min, a minister in the President's Office, who said the Burmese government will provide training and jobs for the returning refugees.
The Thai-Burma Border Consortium, a nonprofit group that provides shelter and food to around 120,000 Burmese refugees, recently visited Burmese officials to discuss the prospects for establishing an office in Burma, in preparation for a repatriation process at some future date.
The Thai statement also said Burma wants the Thai business community “to invest in building industrial estates” in Burma to employ the tens of thousands of potential returnees.