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Thailand urged to halt forced returns and grant legal status to Myanmar refugees 

Fortify Rights has called on the Thai government to provide legal status for Myanmar refugees and reform its immigration laws following the forced return of more than 650 refugees to Myanmar. 

The advocacy group claimed it witnessed Thai soldiers conducting a pushback operation on April 24, 2024, returning refugees to Myanmar from temporary shelters in Mae Sot, Tak Province.

Representatives from a Thai parliamentary committee, accompanied by Fortify Rights, visited Mae Sot to evaluate the conditions for Myanmar refugees. 

“By providing refugees with legal status, Thailand would not only meet its obligations under international law but also strengthen the rule of law and security,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. 

“As long as the Myanmar junta continues its attacks on civilians, Thailand will have refugees coming to its borders in search of safety and protection,” said Smith. 

On April 24, Fortify Rights observed Thai soldiers transporting approximately 200 refugees to a Temporary Safety Area (TSA) known as “Nong Wua Dang Farm.” 

According to the group, the refugees, including women, children, and the elderly, were forced to wade through the Moei River back into Myanmar’s Karen State, a conflict zone. 

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Fortify Rights also reported two explosions near the border before the forced crossing.

Fortify Rights said it obtained a “secret” memo from Thailand’s Office of the National Security Council, which emphasized surveillance and prevention of illegal immigration but lacked provisions for refugee protection or coordination with international agencies.

Another TSA site, “Tha Sai Rujira,” housed over 650 refugees in inadequate conditions, with limited access to sanitation and medical facilities. 

Thai soldiers informed Fortify Rights that all refugees at this site would be returned to Myanmar on the same day. 

A Thai soldier stationed at the Tha Sai Rujira TSA told the group that it is “not a pleasant place to see how they live here, but we did our best.”

Currently, only one TSA in Umphang District remains active, hosting 77 refugees for over a month. Smith criticized the inhospitable conditions and the denial of basic freedoms and necessities for refugees, urging Thai authorities to end forced returns and ensure freedom of movement for refugees.

“Confining refugees in inhospitable environments while stripping them of basic freedoms and necessities is not a protection strategy; it’s a violation of human rights,” she said.

Rangsiman Rome, a Member of Parliament, proposed granting temporary protective status to Myanmar refugees, allowing them to reside and work in Thailand legally. 

“Our subcommittee also suggests using the Immigration Law 1979 to allow [Myanmar] refugees to get in without needing permission. We can also allow them a temporary residency and right to work while waiting to sort things out legally in the future. These approaches would help to fulfill [Thailand’s] labor demand,” said Rome.

A parliamentary committee meeting on May 20, 2024, will discuss reforms to the 1979 Immigration Act, aiming to better manage migration and address Thailand’s labor needs. 

Despite initiating a National Screening Mechanism for refugees, it has not been fully implemented, potentially excluding Myanmar refugees from protection.

Fortify Rights reported numerous abuses by Thai authorities against Myanmar refugees, including arbitrary arrests, extortion, and forced returns. 

The organization said that Thailand’s failure to ratify the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention does not justify violations of refugee rights.

Since the Myanmar military coup in February 2021, over three million civilians have been displaced, with many seeking refuge in Thailand. 

The Thai-Myanmar Border Operating Center reported thousands of refugees fleeing to Thailand in April 2024 due to ongoing conflicts.

“Thailand’s immigration laws need urgent reform,” said Amy Smith. “Thailand should align its laws with international standards and implement strategies to protect refugees.”

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