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 pingpong,” 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.
“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.
Life along the river is grim and frightening.
“It is not far from the war zone,” says Naw Htoo Htoo, of the ethnic Karen Human Rights Group. “The elderly and children are not comfortable in the makeshift tents….There are illnesses not only caused by the weather, but also by COVID-19.”
In December, 48-year-old Myint fled the Karen small town of Lay Kay Kaw, near the Thai border, with her husband and three children. Officials in Thailand sent them back. With few options, Myint and her family joined around 600 others living near the river on the Myanmar side.
In February, heavy rains flooded their camp, and Myint fears the looming monsoon season will make their already miserable situation even worse.
“I think the refugee camps will be in a lot of trouble,” she says. “We can do nothing but make our temporary tents a little stronger.”
On the Thai side of the river, Hay’s tent offers virtually no protection from the sweltering sun, mosquitoes and drenching rains.
The family yearns for their home and their corn fields near Lay Kay Kaw. On Dec. 16, Hay and her husband grabbed their 3-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and ran amid a cacophony of gunfire. When they reached the river, the fighting was still so close they knew they could not safely stay on the Myanmar side. And so they trudged through the water to Thailand.
“We want to go back but we have no house,” she says.
There are no toilets, and no way to make money. Food and other supplies are scarce, yet the Thai authorities have refused to allow international NGOs and the UNHCR access to the refugees.
“The Thai authorities have said that they have resources to respond, and the INGOs and the UN will not get access,” says Thompson of The Border Consortium. “The Thai authorities are very much keeping this a low visibility, very basic response.”
Most of the aid has come from local Thai community groups. Phoe Thingyan, of the Overseas Irrawaddy Association, says his group sends 1,000 boxes of rice each morning and evening to the refugees, but that he has had to ask the Thai military for permission to accept donations.
The Thai military doesn’t even want to acknowledge the existence of Myanmar refugees in Thailand because that alone could upset Myanmar’s military leaders, says Patrick Phongsathorn, human rights specialist with the Asia-based group Fortify Rights.
“The Thai military is intent on controlling the situation, controlling the narrative, because obviously they have political skin in the game, in what’s happening in Myanmar,” he says. “They are very close with the Myanmar junta authorities.”
Somchai, the Thai governor, seemed to hint at this: “When the fighting stopped, they had to go back,” he said of the refugees Thailand returned. “Otherwise, it could be a sensitive issue for the relationship between both countries.”
The Thai military declined to comment.
Those who remain in Thailand end up in not just physical but legal limbo, vulnerable to exploitation. One Myanmar refugee in Thailand who spoke to the AP said “police cards” – unofficial documents that allow displaced people to avoid arrest or deportation -- are purchased monthly through middlemen for an average cost of 350 Thai baht ($10). Cards are marked with a photo or symbol showing that the holders have paid the latest monthly bribe.
Without the cards, refugees risk further harassment or possible arrest by Thai authorities.
“They will take you to the police station and they will check your documents, test your urine for drug use,” says the refugee, whose name is being withheld by the AP for security reasons. “Police intimidate the people, and the cards are the easiest way to avoid that.”
Tanee, the Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said the government “categorically denied” the existence of any extortion or bribery.
Though 23-year-old Win and his family initially pitched their tent on the Thai side of the river, Thai authorities soon sent them back. The chemistry student now regularly crosses the river through chest-deep water to retrieve food, clothes and other donated items from the Thai side. Then he turns around and wades back to his campsite in Myanmar, where he lives alongside around 300 other refugees, including children and the elderly.
They are surviving, but only just. What he wants more than anything, he says, is the one thing he cannot have.
“I just want to go home,” he says. “I do not want anything else.”