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Stranded Myanmar Refugees Seek Answers in Thailand

FILE - Displaced people from Myanmar live under a makeshift tent along the Thai side of the Moei River in Mae Sot, Thailand, Feb. 7, 2022.

Myanmar refugees have been trapped in Thailand for more than a year waiting to be released for travel to third countries. According to NGOs assisting the refugees, there are around 1,100 people who have been approved for resettlement in the United States and other countries but haven’t been allowed to leave Thailand.

These people have received refugee status from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand. They are receiving assistance from the International Organization for Migration, which has placed the refugees in temporary housing pending their release to leave the country.

However, after more than a year, “it feels like we are in prison,” said Kalayar, a refugee trapped in Thailand. She agreed to be identified by only one name because of her security concerns in Thailand. It has been more than a year since she and her family were put in a hotel, called a safe house, in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Myanmar border.

A former political prisoner, Kalayar, 53, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1995 by a previous military junta for her political activities. After her release, she became a freelance journalist. When the military launched a coup in February 2021 and cracked down on protests and media organizations, she hid inside the country for months before she and her family escaped to Thailand in September 2021.

She told VOA by Zoom that the family has been staying at the safe house since November 1, 2022.

“On March 23, 2022, we received the approval letter from the U.S. government to settle in the United States as refugees,” she said, explaining that her family then completed all required medical examinations and vaccinations by the end of April. “So, the steps we must take to enter the United States have been completed.”

But Kalayar and her family still don’t know why they’re not yet allowed to depart Thailand.

“We heard that the Thai government has upheld the release of refugees,” she said. “It is restricted by the Thai government, but we don’t know why.”

FILE - This photo taken Dec. 16, 2021, by Metta Charity shows people from Myanmar who fled a surge in violence, sitting in lines as they are processed in Mae Tao Phae, in Thailand's Mae Sot district.
FILE - This photo taken Dec. 16, 2021, by Metta Charity shows people from Myanmar who fled a surge in violence, sitting in lines as they are processed in Mae Tao Phae, in Thailand's Mae Sot district.

Kalayar reached out to the IOM and the Resettlement Support Center, a U.S. organization responsible for processing refugee cases, but neither one provided a clear answer about the travel restriction.

VOA has yet to receive responses to inquiries filed with both organizations.

“It feels like we are being kept in a zoo,” Kalayar told VOA. “The IOM provides three meals, but the food is not good. Yet we are not given a choice – we have to eat it or nothing. We are not allowed to leave the hotel courtyard. There is no income. Being a refugee, we are not allowed to work in Thailand.”

Kalayar also said she and fellow refugees are without health care and risk arrest if they venture outside the safe house seeking treatment at their own expense.

“If we get sick, we have to ask for help online from friends who are doctors,” she said. “It's as if these doctors are guessing and giving prescriptions. Medicines cannot be bought outside. So we asked the staff at the hotel to help us buy the medicine prescribed by the doctors.”

Neither of her children has been able to attend school since the coup.

VOA inquiries to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok were referred to the U.N. refugee agency, which the embassy officials described as “the agency primarily responsible for registration of refugee status and referrals for resettlement.”

The U.S. State Department in Washington did not immediately provide any explanation for the delay.

Morgane Roussel-Hemery of UNHCR’s office in Thailand told VOA that the Thai government possesses sole authority to decide who is eligible for international departures.

Thai officials have not yet responded to queries filed by VOA by phone.

Duncan McArthur, acting executive director of the Border Consortium, a Bangkok-based NGO that provides food, clothing and support for an estimated 87,000 Myanmar refugees scattered across nine camps in western Thailand, could only speculate about the travel restrictions.

He said Thai government officials might be “scared of creating a pull factor for democracy activists and other people to come to Thailand as a steppingstone to go to third countries.”

Thailand currently hosts more than 95,000 refugees, primarily from Myanmar, though the country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no specific domestic legal framework for protection of urban refugees and asylum-seekers.

According to McArthur, “we estimate … over 20,000 people have fled into Thailand from fear of political persecution since the coup from urban areas. … About half of them, 11,000, have contacted UNHCR.”

Thailand is quite strict on new arrivals coming into Thailand but is trying to be pragmatic, he said. “They're trying to not create any more instability than there already is. They're trying to find their way best to deal with it, which we might not necessarily agree with but you can understand from their perspective.”

Myanmar refugees like Kalayar hope the U.S. and other Western countries that have accepted them for resettlement will reach an agreement with the Thai government to allow them to depart as soon as possible.

“We don't know for sure who is stopping us from leaving and why it cannot be resolved. We still have many questions,” Kalayar said.

According to McArthur, “that's going to take some negotiation and advocacy and some reassurance to the Thai government that it's not going to create a pull factor for other opportunistic people, this kind of thing. So that's going to take some negotiation to try to reassure them that that's not going to happen.”