Fortify Rights witnesses Thai soldiers push back hundreds of Myanmar refugees

(MAE SOT, May 17, 2024)— The Government of Thailand should provide legal status for Myanmar refugees and immediately reform its immigration law, said Fortify Rights today. On April 24, 2024, Thai soldiers facilitated a pushback operation to return more than 650 refugees to Myanmar after holding them in ill-equipped temporary shelters for an unspecified number of days.

Fifteen representatives from a Thai parliamentary committee focused on border affairs were in Thailand’s border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province this week to assess conditions for Myanmar refugees. Fortify Rights is an advisory member of the committee, and a representative from Fortify Rights traveled with the delegation to Mae Sot.

“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 Fortify Rights Executive Director Amy Smith. “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.”

Watch Fortify Rights’s film on pushbacks by Thai authorities in Mae Sot

On the morning of April 24, 2024, Fortify Rights witnessed Thai soldiers forcibly return several hundred refugees to Myanmar. Around 11:15 a.m., Thai soldiers arranged the transport, via multiple truckloads, of approximately 200 refugees to an area designated as a “Temporary Safety Area (TSA)”—makeshift locations controlled by the Royal Thai Army to hold influxes of refugees from Myanmar. This TSA, known as “Nong Wua Dang Farm,” is one of two TSAs that Fortify Rights visited in April 2024 and is located approximately three miles from the second Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge along the Moei River, which demarcates the border between Thailand and Myanmar. After the arrival of Myanmar refugees to the TSA, four to five Thai soldiers led them in batches into the waist-deep water of the Moei River, where the refugees were forced to cross by foot back to Myanmar’s Karen State—an active armed conflict zone. The group of refugees included women, children, and elderly persons. A local branch of the Thai Red Cross was at the TSA site distributing a small package of food to the refugees preparing to cross back to Myanmar.

Before the crossing, Fortify Rights heard two loud explosions believed to be coming from the Myanmar side of the border. The two explosions occurred shortly after Fortify Rights arrived at the TSA location. A Thai soldier on-site told Fortify Rights the Thai Army would follow their procedures to return the refugees to Myanmar despite concerns of armed conflict on the Myanmar side of the border.

Fortify Rights obtained a copy of an abridged version of a memo labeled “secret” from Thailand’s Office of the National Security Council outlining guidelines “to respond to persons fleeing from unrest in Myanmar.” The first point includes, “Beefing up surveillance and prevention of illegal immigration.” While the memo includes bringing “persons fleeing from unrest in Myanmar to temporary safety areas” and offering “basic necessities for survival,” there is no mention of protecting the rights of refugees or coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or humanitarian agencies. 

Earlier on April 24, 2024, Fortify Rights visited another TSA site known as “Tha Sai Rujira,” also located along the Moei River approximately four miles from the second Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. Both TSA sites were located in gated-off areas guarded by Thai soldiers and contained a large metal-roofed open-air structure previously used as a shelter for farm animals. In the Tha Sai Rujira TSA, the open-air shed housed goats. Plastic tarps and rattan mats were placed on the ground to cover the dirt ground for the refugees. According to a sign posted in the Tha Sai Rujira TSA, the refugee population at this location during the time of Fortify Rights’s visit was 658 in total, including 247 women and 215 children. Ten portable toilets were located next to the goat shed to accommodate the more than 650 refugees. Health workers from Mae Sot Ram Hospital had a table set up in the TSA to provide basic medical supplies to the refugees. The refugees had no observable access to raised bedding structures or cooking or basic sanitation facilities. Approximately five to seven Thai soldiers were stationed in a building located next to the goat shed while more than ten soldiers monitored the group of refugees.

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

Another Thai soldier informed Fortify Rights that all the refugees at the Tha Sai Rujira TSA would be sent back to Myanmar that day. Fortify Rights witnessed seven trucks arrive at the TSA to transport the refugees to a border location where they would be returned to Myanmar. The Thai soldiers assisted the refugees into the trucks.      

At the time of writing, only one TSA in Umphang District remains in use, hosting 77 refugees who have been there for at least a month, according to the Thai-Myanmar Border Operations Center of Tak Province.

“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,” said Amy Smith. “Thai authorities should ensure the right to freedom of movement for refugees in Thailand and end the practice of forcibly returning refugees to Myanmar.”

The Committee on Border Affairs attending a meeting with government agencies responsible for the Thai-Myanmar border in Tak Province. ©The Committee on National Security, Border Affairs, National Strategy, and National Reform, 2024

Delegates of the Thai Parliamentary National Security, Border Affairs, National Strategy, and National Reform Committee, including Fortify Rights, recently completed a three-day visit to Mae Sot to learn about the situation of Myanmar refugees from relevant parties, including senior Thai officials and refugee leaders. Between May 12 to 14, the delegation members met with the District Chief of Mae Sot, the Superintendent of Tak Province Immigration Bureau, the Commander of Tak Provincial Police, the Deputy Commander of the Naresuan Armed Force—a special unit of the Royal Thai Army designated to protect the borders—and other senior officials. The delegation also met with the U.N. refugee agency, Myanmar refugee community leaders, and humanitarian organizations supporting refugees.

Ahead of the committee’s border visit, on April 25, 2024, the chair of the committee and Member of Thai Parliament Rangsiman Rome announced in Parliament a proposal to grant temporary protective status for Myanmar refugees, saying:

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.

Another parliamentary committee—the Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights of the House of Representatives—and the Thailand Migration Reform Consortium are scheduled to host a meeting at Parliament on May 20, 2024 about reforming Thailand’s 1979 Immigration Act. The agenda includes reforming immigration laws to better manage “irregular” migration while considering the needs of Thailand’s aging population.  

Although Thai authorities initiated the implementation of its National Screening Mechanism—a process meant to identify and protect refugees—the process has not yet been implemented to scale and may effectively exclude Myanmar refugees from protection.

Fortify Rights has documented how Thai authorities are responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, and forced return of Myanmar refugees. For example, in October 2023, Fortify Rights documented how Myanmar refugees seeking healthcare in Mae Sot face arrest and extortion by Thai authorities. Earlier, in April 2023, Fortify Rights documented how Thai authorities reportedly forced three men back to Myanmar and potentially into the custody of the Myanmar military-affiliated Border Guard Force, putting them in grave danger.   

Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention) or its 1967 Protocol, the Convention provides authoritative guidance on refugee protection under international law. Under the Convention, a refugee is defined as a person unable or unwilling to return to their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution.

Failure to ratify the Refugee Convention or its Protocol is not a valid excuse for violating the rights of refugees, said Fortify Rights.

Without an effective legal framework to recognize and protect refugees in Thailand, refugees face criminal penalties under Thailand’s 1979 Immigration Act, which prohibits unauthorized entry or stay in Thailand. As a result, refugees in Thailand are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention. 

The Sphere Handbook provides authoritative guidance on minimum standards for humanitarian responses in situations involving displaced persons. The shelter and settlement standards require “living spaces that are safe and adequate, enabling essential household and livelihoods activities to be undertaken with dignity.” The Sphere standards include access to essential services and facilities, including WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities, food storage and processing facilities, and sufficient water for drinking, cooking, and personal and domestic hygiene. The minimum ratio of shared toilets under the Sphere standards is one toilet per 20 people. The Thu Sai Rujira TSA provided one portable toilet per 65 people.

Since the Myanmar military launched a coup d’état on February 1, 2021, Fortify Rights continues to document atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. Such crimes have displaced more than three million civilians and forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee Myanmar, many of whom have sought protection in Thailand.

In April 2024, according to the Thai-Myanmar Border Operating Center of Tak Province, thousands of Myanmar refugees fled to Thailand to escape fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic resistance forces taking place near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

“Thailand’s immigration laws need and deserve reform,” said Amy Smith. “Thailand should bring its laws in line with international standards and implement strategies that will protect refugees.”

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