The Government of Thailand should end refugee pushbacks and protect refugee rights, said Fortify Rights in a new short-film released last Thursday (2 February) on the forced return of refugee children to Myanmar.
In a recent letter to Fortify Rights, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) announced it would investigate the government’s treatment of refugees in response to evidence of potential violations shared by Fortify Rights.
“Despite awareness of ongoing atrocities in Myanmar, Thai soldiers continue to push refugees into harm’s way,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director at Fortify Rights.
“The Thai government is putting refugee lives at risk, including the lives of children. We’re hopeful the commission’s investigation into the government’s treatment of refugees will prompt much-needed changes.”
In the short film published today by Fortify Rights, three ethnic-Karen teachers from Myanmar describe how Thai authorities repeatedly pushed the teachers and their young students, ages two and 13, back to an active armed-conflict zone in Myanmar. The teachers describe seeking refuge in Thailand to escape ongoing airstrikes by the Myanmar military.
A Thai-language version of the film by Fortify Rights premiered on Thai media outlet Voice TV on 1 February 2023 to mark the second anniversary of the Myanmar coup.
Thai authorities reportedly pushed refugees back to Myanmar on several occasions in 2022, including in January and September 2022.
Fortify Rights spoke with 13 Myanmar refugees, including the three ethnic-Karen teachers featured in the film, a Thai resident living on the Thailand-Myanmar border, and eight humanitarian workers, U.N. officials, and others supporting displaced communities on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
“Many [Thai] military personnel and police came,” said “Naw Htoo Eh Say,” a 31-year-old ethnic-Karen teacher featured in the film, describing how Thai authorities apprehended her and approximately 100 of her students in January 2022 in Phrop Phra District, Thailand, near the Myanmar border. “All of them were carrying guns. There were over 20 [military and police] . . . They said, ‘You are all illegal. So, you have to go back [to Myanmar].’”
“Naw Wah Eh,” 52, another ethnic-Karen teacher featured in the film, describing the same incident said: “[Thai authorities] came and ordered everyone to line up. They told the children not to run. Woken up in the middle of the night, some of the children cried and urinated on themselves.”
The teachers shared how the Thai authorities herded the group onto trucks and forced them across the border to Myanmar the following day. Forty-year-old “Naw Phaw Wah,” who was also a teacher with the group, told Fortify Rights:
There were different groups of military and police stationed by the road, like it was planned beforehand. They were all carrying guns and watching us . . . They dropped us at the riverside, and many soldiers surrounded us with guns. “Go!” They said to us. We couldn’t do anything. All of us went back [to Karen State, Myanmar].
This incident is consistent with other violations documented by Fortify Rights in 2022. For example, on 12 October 2022, Fortify Rights submitted to the NHRCT information about forced returns, arbitrary arrests and detention, and the extortion of Myanmar refugees from Thailand. As part of this information, Fortify Rights included reference to earlier documentation, in May 2022, exposing how Thai soldiers destroyed a makeshift cross-border footbridge used by refugees fleeing Myanmar as well as testimony evidencing the arbitrary arrest, detention, and extortion of Myanmar refugees by Thai authorities.
On 27 December 2022, the NHRCT responded in a letter to Fortify Rights saying that it “has accepted to review your complaint and has instructed its affiliated agencies to work on the case.” Specifically, the NHRCT instructed the Human Rights Protection Bureau 2 to use information provided by Fortify Rights “for the preparation of the [sic] human rights violation investigation report regarding the rights of migrants” and for the International Human Rights Affairs Bureau “to further furnish its opinion to the cabinet when Thailand decides to become a party to any [human rights] treaty.”
While the NHRCT letter to Fortify Rights was private, the information contained in the letter is not confidential, said Fortify Rights.
The NHRCT also instructed the Legal Affairs Bureau to use Fortify Rights’s information “to develop recommendations” for the implementation of the National Screening Mechanism (NSM).
Although the Thai Cabinet approved in December 2019 the creation of the NSM—a process to facilitate the identification and potential protection of refugees in Thailand—it has yet to be implemented. As recently as 15 December 2022, Fortify Rights highlighted concerns with the proposed NSM in an open letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha after the Thai Cabinet approved in principle provisions that would potentially exclude migrant workers and others from accessing due protection in Thailand.
“We expect Thai authorities to cooperate fully with the human rights commission’s investigation,” said Amy Smith.
“Ongoing atrocities in Myanmar are creating new refugee flows, and Thailand is well-placed to be part of a regional solution to mitigate the crisis in Myanmar. Instead, Thailand is exacerbating protection concerns for displaced communities fleeing the Myanmar junta while attempting to legitimize the junta.”
Since the 1 February 2021 coup d’état in Myanmar, Fortify Rights has documented a variety of international crimes committed by the Myanmar junta, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. On 24 January 2022, Fortify Rights and 16 individual complainants from Myanmar announced the filing of a criminal complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor General of Germany under the principle of universal jurisdiction against senior Myanmar military generals and others for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Speaking about how atrocities by the Myanmar military forced the three teachers and their students to flee to Thailand, “Naw Htoo Eh Say,” said:
Some of my students went home to their villages during the school holidays. When they returned, their homes were gone. No roofs, no walls, no floors . . . They were destroyed, so the students and their families needed to leave. I was worried an airstrike would hit [our village]. We are near the gunfighting area and can hear everything.
Her colleague “Naw Paw Wah” agreed, saying: “I miss our village. I grew up there. But it’s dangerous. There is fighting there. Thailand is our only safe option.”
Although Thailand is not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol, the Convention provides authoritative guidance on refugee protection under international law. Moreover, the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forced return of a person to a country where they may face torture or other forms of ill-treatment, is accepted as binding on all states under international customary law. Section 13 of Thailand’s recently enacted Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act further affirmed Thailand’s obligation under domestic law to prevent the forced return of “a person to another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or enforced disappearance.”
Thailand is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 3 of the CRC states that, “In all actions concerning children . . . the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” This provision is echoed in Section 22 of Thailand’s Child Protection Act.
“Thailand has made laws, policies, and commitments to protect refugees, but these commitments are meaningless without action,” said Amy Smith. “It is time for Thailand to translate its commitments on paper into genuine protections for refugees.”