You Are NOT a Refugee… You Are a Political Prisoner

Possibly the biggest issue as well as danger faced by former political prisoners when they flee Burma and arrive in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border is that they are not recognised as a refugee. In essence this means that they are not safe and their lives are in great danger as they can be returned to Burma at any moment if caught by the Thai authorities. With many Burmese agents, informers and spies on the border area there is a very clear and present danger for all those who arrive here. Having spent years in prison for their political beliefs and activities, they manage to flee the country at great risk, arrive in the assumed free outside world where they are not free or safe. They become stateless people. They are still prisoners.

Throughout our time here on the Thai-Burma border we have been documenting the lives, current situations and dangers that the former political prisoners face upon fleeing Burma and arriving here in Thailand. Some make their way into either Umpiem Mai or Nupo refugee camps – not through official channels of course because you see these people aren’t seen as refugees and therefore can’t be given the protection that the camps have to offer (they have to make their own way there… you work it out). Others are left to survive in safe houses with colleagues who have also made the treacherous journey in fleeing Burma over the past years. The UNHCR of course state that their hands are tied by Thailand’s own policy on refugees because it hasn’t signed up to the 1951 Geneva Refugee convention (see below). Unfortunately they wouldn’t answer my calls to meet to discuss this issue. But when you can prove that you have been in prison for your political activities because not only do you have your release card from jail but also your ICRC certificate from when they visited you in prison and documented you and gave you a ‘Special Detainee’ number, when you can prove without doubt your past background as an activist, the torture you have suffered at the hands of the military regime, the years you have spent in Burma’s gulags and therefore without doubt the very real threat to your safety if you are returned to Burma then surely you are a refugee? Clearly the UNHCR and Thailand think differently as more than 100 former political prisoners are living in fear each day that they may be returned at any moment to the SPDC who you can be damned sure know exactly who these people are. It’s why they jailed them in the first place. And what of the third countries that are waiting to take these people who wish to resettle? The USA is leading the way… that was until they put all cases on hold.

Take this for an example (a very brief summary and you can read more on a previous post of Nupo refugee camp). A former MP for the National League for Democracy who spent 2 years in Insein prison in 1990 having been charged with high treason. He meets a US diplomat in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound with her in 1995. He flees Burma to Thailand. He later meets the same US diplomat when he is working for the NCUB. People therefore know who this man is – he is an MP from the NLD who was jailed because of exactly that reason. His health is failing due to the torture he suffered when he was being interrogated in Burma. He has to stop working. His son flees Burma to be with him. They make their way into Nupo refugee camp to try to get resettlement to a third country – he is fast tracked by the UNHCR (probably because no-one wants to have the death of someone of his stature on their hands). But then the US Department of Homeland Security decides to put his case on hold. No-one knows why. In the meantime in a bizarre twist of fate, his perfectly healthy son is resettled to the USA. He is still in Nupo refugee camp some 2 years later – still on hold and unable to re-apply to another country until the US decides his fate. There can surely be no doubt whatsoever as to who he is because after all one of their diplomats met him with Aung San Suu Kyi? Then there’s the story of the former political prisoner resettled to the UK yet his wife and young child are still stuck in a refugee camp waiting and praying that one day they will be able to join him and start to live their life… but she is being refused resettlement. Then there is the story of the former political prisoner in a refugee camp who complained about the amount of food rations he and his colleagues were receiving. He was taken away at night into the forest to be shot. Thankfully his colleagues found out in time and he was returned to camp. These are just some of the stories and unfortunately there are hundreds more.

So the question is what’s going on… not just with these cases but with policy in general with regards to political refugees fleeing Burma?

We are busy working with NGO’s and other contacts on highlighting the situation faced by former political prisoners upon fleeing Burma and will report back soon as our work progresses. We hope to be able to present our findings to the British Government.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention is the foundation of international protection of refugees. It defines a refugee as someone outside their own country unable or unwilling to return owning to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It sets out the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights a refugee should receive from the 141 states that are now party to the Convention. It was the first international agreement that spelled out a set of basic human rights that should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and, in many cases, those of citizens of that state. These include freedom of religion and movement, and the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution. It also spells out people or groups of people who are not covered by the Convention. For more information, see www.unhcr.ch/1951convention/51qanda.html

As Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees they are able to implement their own criteria for assessing if someone is in genuine need of protection. To date the guidelines that have been used have been very narrow and only include fleeing fighting. The argument put forward by the Thai authorities for not accepting new arrivals is that the people who are seeking shelter are not fleeing fighting but looking for resettlement opportunities.

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Comments

  1. Interesting article! Burma Voices collected stories from Burmese people in exile; some of whom live in NuPo refugee camp. Many cases are put on hold there and many people are left completely hopeless. Good to pay attention to this disaster, that’s so unknown in the world. Read some stories on http://www.burmavoices.com

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