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Déjà vu is a French term meaning “already seen”.  Refoulement is also French, with a literal meaning of “force back”.  Upon receiving a report on Christmas day that Thai authorities had just forced back 166 refugees to Myanmar, I knew that I had seen this before—on Christmas 2009 in fact.  

Indeed, a year ago this weekend a colleague and I wrote an editorial in this newspaper decrying the Thai government’s 2009 record on refugee protection.  In late December—likewise seemingly calculated to coincide with the slowest week of the year—the army had forcibly returned to Laos around 4,500 ethnic minority Hmong, among whom were 158 recognized refugees and many other asylum-seekers.

A year on, only the facts have changed: the 166 refugees forcibly returned on 25 December had fled fighting in eastern Myanmar between the Burmese army and several ethnic minority armed groups.  One hundred and twenty were women and children.  They had taken refuge in Waw Lay village in Phop Phra district in Tak province—where authorities had likewise forced back at least 360 Burmese refugees on 8 December, roughly 650 on 17 November, and approximately 2,500 on 10 November.

Along with the year-end symmetry, however, the human rights violations are the same.  Everyone has the right to seek asylum, and those recognized as refugees have a right to not be sent back to fighting or persecution—the principle of non-refoulement.  The Thai government denied this right to the 166 people from Myanmar, all considered refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  The fact that Thailand has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention makes no difference: like the prohibition against torture, non-refoulement is customary international law, meaning that it applies to all states regardless of their treaty obligations.  Once again, Thailand has committed a clear and direct violation of international refugee law.  

Despite the ugly precedent set a year ago, this action still came as a shock, given that on 7 October the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs had publicly denied any “plans to repatriate Myanmar displaced persons after the [Burmese] elections”.  It was election day itself, 7 November, when the first of roughly 20,000 refugees from Burma began to arrive in Thailand.  And on 6 December —though after several incidents of refoulement had already occurred—the Governor of Tak province, Samart Loifa, was quoted in this newspaper as stating that Thailand would not send refugees back as long as the fighting continued. 

This was, sadly, often not the case, for while most refugees have returned to Myanmar, many—like the 166 on Christmas—did so involuntarily.  And the fighting has continued throughout.    

My colleague and I concluded our editorial a year ago that “ Thailand’s disregard for its international legal obligations should not go without a response by the international community”, and I can only restate that now.  UNHCR, which issued a statement in late December calling on Thailand to not forcibly return the 166, should condemn the action and reiterate its call vis-à-vis all refugees who remain in Thailand or may yet arrive.  Embassies in Bangkok should do likewise, while countries on the UN Human Rights Council (which includes Thailand as a member and Thailand’s Ambassador to Geneva as its President) should also raise concerns about this violation.

Indeed, it is now too late for the 166 Burmese refugees who have been forcibly returned, just as it was last year for the 158 Lao Hmong refugees.  But given ongoing conflict in Myanmar, refugees from will continue to cross the border during 2011.  Thailand—regardless of which party is in power—must acknowledge and uphold its international legal obligations.  Once is already once too often for human rights déjà vu.


Benjamin Zawacki is Amnesty International's Researcher on Thailand and Myanmar

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