Myanmar refugees in Thailand start interviews for US resettlement

Bangkok — Interviews have begun with Myanmar refugees living in Thailand who are eligible for a new resettlement program in the United States, the Thai government said.

Thailand said it hopes the first group may get to move by the end of the year.

Some 90,000 refugees live in nine camps on the Thai side of the border to escape fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic minority rebel armies vying for autonomy. Some of the refugees were born in the camps, which started to form in the mid-1980s, and many have lived in them for decades.

Persistent fighting in Myanmar, amplified by a military coup in February 2021, has kept most from returning home.

Aiming to give the refugees a safe way out of the camps, Thailand, the United States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced the resettlement plan in May 2023.

One year on, Thailand’s Ministry of Interior says that the Thai government and UNHCR have finished checking the personal information of the refugees to verify their eligibility for the program. More than 80,000 refugees were deemed eligible, and nearly all of them told officials they wanted to resettle.

“After that, the U.S. team went to the first two camps for interviews, which have already been done,” Zcongklod Khawjang, an interior ministry official in charge of overseeing the resettlement program, told VOA this week.

The two camps — Ban Don Yang and Tham Hin — are among the smallest of nine and host about 8,750 refugees combined.

Zcongklod said the U.S. Embassy in Thailand has not told the Thai government when the authorized refugees would be resettled or when interviews in the other seven camps would begin. But he added that Thailand was expecting the “first batch” to move to the U.S. sometime this year.

Hayso Thako, a joint secretary with the Karen Refugee Committee, one of the charities working in the camps, said he received the same message from the UNHCR at a meeting in March.

“They said most probably the first group would be able to leave by the end, almost the end of this year,” he said.

The UNHCR declined to comment on when resettlement might begin and referred the question to the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to provide a time frame.

“Resettlement operations are ongoing in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government,” the U.S. Embassy told VOA by email, attributing the comment to “a U.S. official.”

The embassy also would not say how many of the 80,000-plus eligible refugees the U.S. was prepared to take in, either annually or in total. Zcongklod said the embassy has not provided the Thai government with those figures, either.

The Border Consortium, a network of charities that coordinate much of the international aid that reached the camps, said it has not been provided with official figures but said plans for the program appear to have been scaled down over time.

“Figures have changes. At the beginning, it was this number of people who could be resettled … and maybe now it could be a lower number of people who could be resettled,” Leon de Riedmatten, executive director of The Border Consortium, told VOA.

Even so, he said, “It’s important for the residents in the camps themselves that there is still the possibility of resettlement. I think this is the main message, even if it’s not going to be so many people who are going to be resettled to the United States.”

Thailand has denied the refugees a regular path to gaining permanent legal residence and keeps tight control over their movements in and out of the camps.

Myanmar’s 2021 coup brought the country’s brief experiment with democracy to a halt, plunging it into civil war and dashing hopes that the refugees could return safely anytime soon.

Hayso Thako and de Riedmatten said it would help if other countries committed to taking in some of the refugees.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA it has encouraged more countries to join the resettlement program.

A previous program ended about five years ago after resettling thousands of refugees in the United States and a few other countries.

Without a clear idea of how many of the refugees the new program can handle, and no end in sight to the civil war raging in Myanmar, charities say the Thai government should also give the refugees the opportunity to settle permanently in Thailand.

“I think it’s key. It’s very, very important, because we cannot expect that all these refugees will be resettled. We cannot expect also that a large part of these refugees will return to Myanmar. So the ones, the majority, who will be left in the camps should have a better future,” de Riedmatten said.

Even after four decades, most of the camps still lack electricity and running water. Most homes are huts of bamboo and eucalyptus poles topped with thatched roofs.

The refugees are mostly barred from studying or working outside of the camps, have few job opportunities inside and receive an average of about $9 in food aid a month.

Some advocates say a growing sense of despair across the camps is causing a rise in domestic abuse, gang violence, drug use and suicide.

“Living in the camps is not easy,” Eh Nay Moo, 30, who fled Myanmar with his parents when he was three years old, told VOA.

“Here, we are just illegal people. … There is no freedom for us. Going here and there outside of the camp, we are not allowed,” he said from Mae La, the largest of the nine camps on the border.

Having spent almost his entire life in the camps, Eh Nay Moo said he cannot imagine returning to Myanmar but sees no real future for himself in the camps.

Eh Nay Moo said he has applied for the new resettlement program and is eagerly awaiting an interview.

“If I get a chance to move to the U.S. … I believe that I will get more opportunity or freedom to do and live my life as a human being,” he said.

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