Thailand pushes Refugees back to Myanmar
Southeast Asia & Pacific Team
Global Human Rights Defense
Following the coup d’état attempt of 2021 in Myanmar, the Burmese military launched a series of air strikes on the Karen State of Myanmar, in an act of “retaliation.” Between February of 2021 and January of 2023, more than 600 air strikes were deployed on the region, killing over 200 people, leaving an estimated 5.000 displaced. Many accuse the Myanmar Armed Forces of staging the coup d’état as a means of justifying the massacre of civilians. Resultantly, the Burmese government established a junta and promptly declared a national state of emergency, which led to protests nationwide to resist the military takeover.
As a consequence of the air strikes, many were forced to flee to Thailand. Despite many reports that militia rebels are among the displaced, the Myanmar Military forces simply launch airstrikes on the general populous if they believe that a resistance fighter is among them. Since February 2021, an estimated 45.000 refugees have fled to Thailand. According to Human Rights Watch, 95.000 people fled to neighboring countries and two million people have been left internally displaced.
Thailand’s response to asylum seekers
Following the beginning of the Myanmar civil war in 2021, Thailand allowed asylum seekers coming from Myanmar to stay in informal refugee camps temporarily. However, Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, therefore, asylum seekers fleeing combat are legally seen as illegal immigrants rather than refugees. Consequently, due to their “alien legal status,” their movement is limited. They are not allowed to join existing refugee camps, and their access to services and human aid is highly restricted.
Allegedly, on the 21st of October, the Thai military ordered the refugees to return to Myanmar within two weeks. However, having no home to go back to, refugees went to the border across the river where there is a settlement for internally displaced people. By the 27th of November, following another series of air strikes, an estimated 2.400 refugees were forced to flee back to Thailand.
As a response, the Thai Military Forces claimed that their stay was temporary and that no armed combat occurred near the border, therefore, they stated that the refugees should go back to Myanmar. Many Human Rights organizations have pressured Thailand to provide protection and support to all refugees. Moreover, they call on Thailand to permit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to aid in determining their refugee status. Although Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, their pushback against Refugees may violate the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible return of anyone who may face inhumane of degrading treatment, which would amount to a violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Thailand is a signatory party to. Following the media backlash resulting from allegations of Thailand’s push-back against refugees dating back to 2021, Thai government officials and military spokespersons have denied the claims.
Sources and further readings:
- Human Rights Watch, ‘Thailand: Recent Refugees Pushed Back to Myanmar’ (29 November 2023) https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/11/29/thailand-recent-refugees-pushed-back-myanmar accessed 30 November 2023.
- Rebecca Tan & Yan Naing, ‘How Myanmar’s unrelenting airstrikes chase families from camp to camp’ (The Washington Post, 7 November 2023) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/11/07/myanmar-military-thailand-refugees-airstrikes/ accessed 30 November 2023.
- Sebastian Strangio, ‘Thailand Sends Refugees Back to Myanmar Amid Continued Fighting’ (The Diplomat, 20 December 2021) https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/thailand-sends-refugees-back-to-myanmar-amid-continued-fighting/ accessed 30 November 2023.
- Jonathan Head, ‘Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war’ (BBC News, 31 January 2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-64397397 accessed 30 November 2023.
- Thai PBS World, ‘Thai government denies pushing back Myanmar civilians at the border’ (30 March 2021) https://www.thaipbsworld.com/thai-government-denies-pushing-back-myanmar-civilians-at-the-border/ accessed 30 November 2023.