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Thailand: Halt Forced Returns to Myanmar

Human RightsThailand: Halt Forced Returns to Myanmar

(Bangkok) – The Thai government’s decision not to forcibly return 19 children to Myanmar should be expanded to include all refugees from Myanmar, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 12, 2024, officials from Thai immigration and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security took 19 Myanmar children, ages 5 to 17, from Wat Sawang Arom School in Lopburi province in central Thailand and brought them without their parents to the border in Chiang Rai province prior to repatriating them to Myanmar. Thai members of parliament, human rights groups, and the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand strongly criticized the planned return. On March 26, Social Development and Human Security Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said in a media interview that his agency would not return the 19 children to Myanmar, and that they could remain in Thailand.

“Thai authorities showed sympathy and support by allowing 19 children from Myanmar to remain in Thailand,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s next step should be to assure all those fleeing Myanmar that they can seek protection in Thailand.”

Prior to Varawut’s announcement, Thai officials had said that the 19 children were “undocumented” and were irregularly living in Thailand. The previous government in July 2023 had used a similar argument to justify sending back 126 “undocumented” Myanmar children from a school in Ang Thong province, despite concerns raised by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and human rights groups.

Varawut’s assurances that these 19 children could remain in Thailand should become Thai government policy for all Myanmar refugees, as long as the human rights situation in Myanmar remains dire, Human Rights Watch said. Fighting since early April around the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy, opposite Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak province, has raised concerns about future influxes of refugees.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said on April 9 that the government has prepared to receive up to 100,000 refugees temporarily.

Not everyone fleeing conflict and rights abuses in Myanmar has been able to seek protection in Thailand. In late October, the Thai military forcibly returned thousands of refugees who had been sheltering in border areas next to Myanmar’s Karenni State.

Any forced returns to Myanmar may violate Thailand’s obligations as a party to the Convention Against Torture and the customary international law principle prohibiting refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a place where they would face a genuine risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to their life.

Since the February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military junta has carried out a nationwide campaign of mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. More than two million people have been internally displaced and more than 109,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries.

The Thai government should promptly fulfill its pledge at the Global Refugee Forum in December 2023 to withdraw its reservation to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 22 guarantees the rights of refugee children, but Thailand’s reservation calls for refugee children to be treated “subject to the national laws, regulations and prevailing practices in Thailand.” The convention also contains protections for children from being forcibly separated from their parents.

Thailand should also provide protection and support to all refugees, including by permitting the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to undertake refugee status determinations.

“The deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar could mean that Thailand receives many more refugees in the near future,” Pearson said. “While the Thai government should be assuring refugees that they will not be returned into harm’s way, concerned governments should be prepared to support Thailand to provide protection.”

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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