Thousands of Myanmar refugees have gradually crossed back into Myanmar over the last few weeks. Living conditions on the Thai side were too difficult and their settlements were reportedly dismantled by the Thai military, according to local sources.
Many of the refugees are from Lay Kay Kaw, a town near the Thai border in Karen state. But when their city was invaded by the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, in December, they fled to Thailand’s border to escape the violence.
Some of the refugees are also from Kayah state, an area that has been targeted with airstrikes over the last two months. The escalation of violence since December has pushed thousands of people to flee for their lives.
“They all left to go back to Myanmar not long ago,” says Daa, an ethnic Karen volunteer who helps lead a small kitchen handing out food donations to the displaced people. “The Thai military came in and told them they should go back.”
She added that the Thai authorities expressed that if the violence begins to escalate again, then the refugees may be allowed to return. But for now, the vast majority have crossed back over to Myanmar.
The majority of the refugees have chosen to avoid returning home to Lay Kaw Kaw out of concern for their safety.
Thai Enquirer heard that there is still heavy Myanmar military presence in Lay Kaw Kaw and that Tatmadaw troops have placed landmines on pathways refugees would need to use to return home. Many refugees have chosen to flee elsewhere as their properties have been looted and many do not have livelihoods to return to.
Heavy clashes between the Myanmar military, which seized power in a coup on February 1, and resistance fighters have killed and displaced thousands of civilians. The situation at the border has deteriorated into a troubling humanitarian crisis. At least 1,500 people have been killed over the year, according to the human rights monitor, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
After the worsening violence in December, refugees made their way to different points on the Moei River, a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar stretching some 327km. In December, at least four small settlements were scattered throughout the area, with sheltering refugees living on both sides.
Large numbers of the refugees are now seeking refuge further into Karen State in an area controlled by the ethnic armed organization, the Karen National Union (KNU), where they have been given refuge.
A spokesperson from KNU confirmed to Thai Enquirer that thousands of refugees have recently entered Karen state, although he said most of them from Thailand came voluntarily as conditions were so harsh in the Thai settlements.
Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch, also told Thai Enquirer that the refugees left on their own volition, but he said that the conditions in the Thai settlements were not sustainable or safe.
“Thailand’s humanitarian responses to the influx of refugees from Myanmar, by letting those fleeing fighting to cross the border and stay in temporary shelters, is ad hoc and inadequate,” Sunai said. “The locations of some shelters are within the range of mortars and rockets that the Myanmar military fires at ethnic forces.”
He added that refugees from Myanmar were allowed to stay as long as Thai officials “could hear shooting, shelling, and bombing” from across the river. But he explained that without clear signs of fighting, the refugees would be told they should consider going back to Myanmar.
“Of course, this is not outright coercion, but many refugees told HRW they feel powerless and have to be submissive to the Thai authorities—hoping that Thailand’s hospitality will still be available next time they come for help.”
Multiple refugees told Thai Enquirer in late January that they did not have access to enough medicine, tarps, food and clean drinking water. Many of them are reportedly still sick and are coping with harsh conditions as heavy rain has been hitting their camps.
“Many of the refugees are women and children, some are very small infants aged 15 days to three months,” Daa said, the local Karen volunteer who has spent months personally delivering aid into the camps.
Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights specialist for Fortify Rights, told Thai Enquirer that the fact that conditions are so difficult on the Thai side where people felt compelled to leave still violates international law.
“The Thai authorities returning refugees to Myanmar is not only morally bankrupt, but goes against Thailand’s legal obligation to not force people back to situations of violence and persecution,” Phongsathorn said from Mae Sot, Thailand.
“Thailand must provide safety to these refugees and any future refugees by providing humanitarian pathways to stay in Thailand and receive protection.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Daa. She feels that for many of the refugees, going home is not an option.
“Many of them didn’t want to leave,” Daa said. “Because the Myanmar army is still in their towns.”