Burma Link | June 17, 2013
In an interview with Burma Link, the refugee who led the petition signed by over 3,600 refugees in Mae La camp explains how he feels about the profiling survey and why he organised a campaign to have the survey modified and re-authored with refugees’ participation and approval. He also details the hurdles they faced when campaigning against camp authorities’ will, and shares his thoughts about life being confined to a refugee camp in Thailand. The survey is set to begin today, June 17th, in Mae La camp.
Q: What are your thoughts about the survey?
I found out about the survey when MFL [Mae Fah Luang Foundation] trained 115 youth reps. I became more interested in the survey when youth reps expressed their feelings about it. Then I analysed the survey and I found that there is something that I don’t like about it…
… The main objective of the survey is about repatriation. On May 18, MFL was planning to present their process on each zone. They should have handed the survey questions to refugees first and then presented their process. But they didn’t. They came up with very good objectives like improving people’s lives and building the future. MFL does not have capability to send refugees back or helping people to stay in Thailand or assisting people to resettle in third countries. They just conduct the survey to collect the data.
…They [MFLF] told us that going voluntarily back to Burma is the best option for people in the camp. They repeated again and again for people to go back but most people don’t want to do that and started to complain. I am one of those who complained. I appealed to them to make it voluntary to answer the questions… They told us that we have no option, we must take all questions.
I understand the purpose of the survey clearly. We have a problem with answering the questions. For example, question no 2.2 asks about whether we want to go to third countries, stay in Thailand or go back. You must rank your answer as first choice, second choice and third choice. Let’s suppose I choose the first choice as going to a third country, second choice as living in Thailand and third choice as going back Burma. I know what will happen next! After getting our answer they will simply start the repatriation process as now they can say that they have our consent already.
They [MFLF] will definitely trick people by saying that there is no resettlement process for refugees and that Thai government does not allow you to stay in Thailand as you are not recognised as refugees so the only choice for you is going back to your country. It is what they will say and do to us if we take the survey. Then they will do whatever they like and UNHCR will not be able to protect refugees from forced repatriation. Now people in the camp are feeling afraid, frustrated and hopeless because of the survey.
They [MFLF] did a presentation for the survey two times at Zone A office. I went to the first meeting and talked about the things that are not good for people. Then they did a second presentation where they had some arguments with refugees. As a result, they had to suspend the process… They said that they are not going harm their organisation’s reputation but if they have the same plan to carry on, the organisation’s reputation will surely be damaged.
In my opinion, they should send refugees who are willing to go back and at the same time they should allow people to resettle and stay in Thailand. There are three groups of people. Some want to go back, some want to stay in Thailand and some want to go to third countries. All of their needs should be met.
Q: What is your opinion about the survey is being conducted?
They said that they intend to prepare for refugees to go back when a certain time comes. They said they come here for refugees to build a potential future. However, I think there is something being hidden behind the scene as there is a rumor spreading that 60 % of refugees will be repatriated. In my opinion, in fact, they are trying to implement the repatriation process as soon as possible.
Q: Do you feel that the survey accurately reflects what you want to do in the future?
This survey totally does not reflect what people want. I believe this survey is designed to reflect what they want. Since there is no choice to take the survey it is like an arbitrary process. People who made the questions have all the choice and refugees don’t have any choice. I am sure it does not reflect people’s needs as the process is only designed to repatriate refugees.
Q: Did they explain refugees about why the survey is being conducted?
The survey mainly talks about repatriation, telling people that there is no opportunity to stay in Thailand or resettle to third countries. And they announced that they can’t do anything for resettlement. People now think that they have no option except to go back to Burma.
I looked at the survey from a political and ideological perspective and found that something isn’t right… The questions from MFL are created by people outside the camp. As a result, those questions are not answerable by refugees. If they wanted to conduct the survey successfully they should prepare questions designed specifically for and with refugees, which refugees can answer voluntarily.
Moreover, we do not believe in a survey which is conducted by tablet because we believe that our answers may be changed somehow. We want to take the survey by our hand writing.
If they do not conduct their survey based on refugees’ needs, we refugees are not going to take the survey at all.
Now, people living in the camp are not taking the survey if they don’t change the questions. People feel dissatisfied with the survey simply because their wants are not considered.
Q: They said that they are going to implement the survey regardless of what lay ahead. What will happen if refugees don’t take the survey?
When Thai authorities forced Hmong refugees back to Laos they used military force. MFL said that they will not do anything that would harm their organisation’s reputation again… I assume they will not send us back by force. However, I think they will trick people in order to carry out the repatriation process somehow. I hope they will implement the process based on refugees’ needs.
Since people in the camp realised the process, they became frustrated. Some can’t even sleep or eat.
I went to UNHCR office in the camp and had a talk with an official. I told the official about the process and problem with MFL. He offered me the UN emergency phone number and protection for my security… I also told him how people feel about the survey and he told me that they heard lots of dissatisfaction from people regarding the survey…
As people are not satisfied with the survey, we have been campaigning to demand six points from MFL: (1) questions should be changed, (2) refugee representatives should be included in implementing the whole process, (3) refugees should be allowed to take the survey voluntarily, (4) the survey must be conducted on paper, (5) questions should be separated for refugees in terms of questions for repatriation, question for resettlement in Thailand, and questions for resettlement in third countries, and (6) each refugee’s concerns must be considered.
When we started the signature campaign we didn’t have any interference from anyone. Later our work was hampered by camp authorities. We are facing some obstacles in campaigning. People singed enthusiastically at first but later they were afraid to participate in the campaign as some were being told not to sign by camp authorities, saying that it is illegal to do a signature campaign without getting permission from the camp committee. Some campaigners are also being followed by camp security.
I led the signature campaign without asking permission from the camp committee because I knew that they wouldn’t allow us to do it because people in leadership have been repeating again and again for us to go back…they are standing with MFL in implementing the survey…We are supposed to follow the camp’s rules and regulations but if I asked permission to do the signature campaign they wouldn’t allow us anyway.
… When I think about the law, people have the right to a peaceful movement. We had been campaigning peacefully, calling people who don’t like the survey to cooperate… Nobody has any power to ban a peaceful movement. People who ban a peaceful movement can be automatically considered an offender. Camp authorities have been following the campaigners and threatening them not to carry on. That’s why we have stopped the campaign now.
… We stopped campaigning because we don’t have proper protection from anyone and decided to hand the petition to UNHCR with as many signatures as we could collect. I am sure 80% would support the campaign if we could do the campaign freely without any interference. But now it’s impossible to get even 5% of people behind the campaign because of the interference. Some sections announced people not to sign.
… After I told them [MFLF] that I can’t take the survey and that I don’t like it, they invited me to have a discussion with them along with UNHCR on May 17. At first I thought that they would change their process but they talked to me the same as on May 13, telling me to take the survey. I told them that I don’t feel safe answering the questions because they ask specifically about my background. If I tell them my background I know that no one can guarantee the safety of my family and my relatives. When I told them that I will not take the survey anymore, they strongly urged me to take it. And they told me that I must answer all questions.
‘People in prison are better off than us because they know the date they get out…’
… Refugees have been held in refugee camps by Thai authorities for almost eight years without any registration. I understand that Thailand has not ratified the 1952 refugee convention so they do not need to follow the regulations for refugees. But they cannot hold people in confinement for over three years. People’s physical and mental health can deteriorate…
Finally, people’s lives have been captured in the camp for a long time. There are about 45,000 refugees in this camp in which about 20,000 refugees are registered with the UN and the rest are not registered. Not registering some people in the camp is problematic as they can’t decide to live in Thailand or resettle to third countries. We become disheartened.
I would like to request Thai government to allow UN to register refugees. If Thai government does not allow us to register, the international community should find ways to pressure Thai government to allow registration.
As people are being trapped in the camp they have less and less hope and as a result crimes are very common. As rations are being cut we can see that crimes such as theft and corruption have increased. Even though according to the ration book we get 12 kilos, we only get 11 kilos… But we have to be content with what we get. I thank donor countries for offering rations for us. If donor countries would help people in the camp by helping them to go where they want, they could spend money on other important things. We are not here to depend on donors. We want to live on our own without depending on others.
All in all, as long as we are not registered, we are like an object that function to give jobs for NGO workers. We are scarifying our lives. People in prison are better off than us because they know the date they get out of the prison. For us, we don’t know when we can freely leave our hopeless confinement.
Written by Burma Link
The interview took place before the petition was sent to UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan and Mae Sot field coordinator Iain Hall on June 4 2013.
After the petition was delivered the survey has seen some important changes, including question 2.2. where refugees now only need to rank preference of minimum two options instead of three (which means they do not have to choose going back to Burma). According to MFLF and UNHCR , the survey is not a mandatory exercise and refugees are not obliged to participate.
Burma Link will continue to listen to the refugees’ voices and monitor the situation.
See Democratic Voice of Burma article ‘Fearing repatriation, Mae La refugees shun profiling survey‘, written in cooperation with Burma Link, reporting on the petition and revealing the widespread discontent and concern regarding the survey in Mae La camp. View the same article on DVB