Escalating Myanmar refugee crisis brings untold dangers

FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 2024

Thailand must act quickly to avert a major crisis amid a growing exodus of people fleeing conscription and conflict in neighbouring Myanmar.

The influx is rising fast in border towns such as Mae Sot, where rights groups are calling for policies that temporarily grant refugees legal status and a screening mechanism that meets international human rights standards.

On February 10, Myanmar’s junta declared that men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 were eligible for two years of mandatory military service under the newly activated conscription law. The move sparked nationwide alarm, with many young Myanmar nationals recoiling at the idea of serving in a military accused of widespread war crimes in its brutal struggle against a popular armed uprising. 

A few days after the conscription announcement, one father made the swift decision to bring his teenage son from Myanmar over to Thailand.

The 18-year-old, who requested anonymity, was working as a nursing assistant earning the equivalent of 2,500 baht per week while completing his medical studies. He spent three days and nights dodging the authorities on his journey to Thailand. After hiding in forests, being picked up by a motorcycle, and hunkering in the back of covered trucks, he was finally reunited with his father on the outskirts of Bangkok on February 19.

A former nursing student who fled to Thailand hopes to return and complete his training.

He is hopeful that one day he will be able to return to his home country. he wants the Thai government to understand that Myanmar nationals are not looking for a permanent home in Thailand, only a haven to escape war and being drafted to commit war crimes against civilians on the front line.

Scared to leave the house, he stays in contact with friends who have crossed to Thailand via Facebook and is seeking to apply for a migrant-worker pink card so he can return to nursing studies or work in hospice care.

He has no plans to remain in Thailand for the long haul but is unsure when the war back home will end and how things will ever return to normal.

Refugees from Myanmar cross the border into Mae Sot.

Military tensions in Myanmar are higher than ever as the junta suffers a series of humiliating battlefield defeats culminating in Karen rebels seizing the border town of Myawaddy adjacent to Mae Sot last week. On April 10, more than 4,000 Myanmar nationals tried to cross the Friendship Bridge linking the two towns, a record-breaking daily influx. Flights out of the country are booked until June with only 400 seats available per day. Meanwhile, two women were trampled to death in a stampede at the Mandalay passport office just days after the February conscription announcement.

International standard screening 

Thailand is falling short in efforts to meet its international obligations to protect refugees, according to Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch.

"Measures taken by Thai authorities have been ad hoc and inadequate [in] making decisions as to when the border will be open for refugees and when the terms for their temporary stay will come to an end," he said.

The kingdom has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention signed by 146 other states around the world, meaning refugees have no legal status in Thailand. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse by officials, employers and others.

Two solutions exist to remedy this situation.

One is to offer refugees legal status in Thai law and ratify the UN convention.

Sunai advises the Thai government to ratify the UN Refugee Convention.

The other is to deploy refugee screening mechanisms that meet international standards. Thailand already possesses a screening mechanism, but no one uses it due to uncertainty over whether it meets international criteria.

The National Screening Mechanism (NSM) was implemented in September last year to identify and offer protection to refugees coming into Thailand. However, the National Human Rights Commission pointed to loopholes in the NSM, including a lack of protections for certain categories of people, short timeframe for appeals, and restrictions on refiling applications for protection.

“In the meantime, I would say that refugees are allowed [to enter] Thailand but they don't have legal status [meaning] one day authorities could show up at their door and send them back into danger. That is their constant fear,” Sunai said.

He urged the Thai government to develop a screening mechanism that meets international standards and to involve the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in determining refugee status for Myanmar nationals in Thailand. UNHCR involvement would mean Thailand could share the burden of taking care of refugees, he added.

Butterfly effect for ASEAN

Thousands are fleeing Myanmar as violence and unrest escalate.

The conscription push and fighting between the Myanmar military and resistance groups are the main drivers of this exodus, confirmed Chit Seng, a Human Rights Associate at Fortify Rights.

"As long as the military remains in power, instability will continue," she said.

The price of renewing a passport in Myanmar has surged from about 15,000 baht to 35,000 baht as demand soars and the backlog of applications grows. 

Despite proximity to the conflict, life goes on in Mae Sot.

Refugees are reportedly using their last remaining valuables to beg or bribe their way to sanctuary, but safe houses in Mae Sot are already at capacity, unable to accommodate the surge of new arrivals.

Long-term solutions are needed, and Seng proposes that granting legal status and opportunities to refugees would benefit both them and Thailand.

“One thing I want to tell ASEAN and foreign governments is that what's happening right now is not an internal issue conflict. This is a domestic issue. This is creating a refugee situation for Thailand and the Thai government needs to pay attention to this. They can't just go along with whatever the Myanmar junta is doing.”

Failure to accommodate Myanmar nationals fleeing from war would put Thailand in the international spotlight as human rights organisations called attention to violations.

Anti-government forces in Myanmar use the First Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge as a base.

Seng added that the conflict was no longer an internal affair and would have a butterfly effect on the ASEAN region, undermining peace and stability for as long as human rights violations in Myanmar go ignored.

As for the Five Point Consensus peace plan, she pointed out that it has not worked and does not have support from the people of Myanmar, so ASEAN should fix it.

Mae Sot overflowing

As the crisis in Myanmar intensifies, more refugees are expected to seek sanctuary in Thailand, increasing the pressure on resources and underscoring the need for coordinated, compassionate responses.

Than Myint Aung, who founded the Mother’s Embrace foundation to help refugees in Mae Sot, declined to estimate how many more people would cross into Thailand, saying it depended on the locations of conflict. But he predicted that many would flee over the border to escape conscription.

Refugees from Myanmar wait for relatives or transport to hotels in Mae Sot.

New arrivals in Mae Sot face living expenses for travel, rent and household utensils that amount to at least 6,000 baht per month.

Safe houses run by Mother’s Foundation and others help save costs for those seeking refuge in Mae Sot, cutting monthly living expenses to about 3,000 baht per person.

Than Myint Aung said one of the biggest challenges for refugees in Mae Sot was the lack of jobs, as official documents such as pink cards are costly and hard to come by. It is also difficult to acquire identification certificates while rental prices are increasing, adding to the burden on people who are already fleeing war.

Failure to address these issues threatens not only the well-being of those fleeing persecution but also the fundamental principles of human dignity and solidarity within the ASEAN region. In the face of adversity, a concerted effort grounded in empathy and respect for human rights is imperative to uphold the values of compassion and justice for all individuals seeking refuge and safety.

The Nation has joined hands with the Nabi Fellows Program, which aims to enhance human rights and democratic development through research, media production, and documentaries.