UNHCR: ’No One Chooses to Be A Refugee’

Rohingya refugees search for valuables amid the debris days after a fire burnt their home at a refugee camp in Ukhia, in the southeastern Cox's Bazar district on March 25, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
  • Johanna Son/ Reporting ASEAN
  • May 3, 2021 8:54 AM

Refugees, people fleeing air strikes by the Myanmar military, and those who are at risk of political persecution, or worse, if they are caught by the junta - they have been the focus of attention as the coup in Myanmar enters its fourth month in May.

This is particularly so in Thailand, which shares a border of over 2,400 km with Myanmar to its west and has hosted nearly 92,000 refugees, most of them of Karen ethnicity, in nine camps through more than three decades.

In recent weeks, news coverage has been about Karen people who fled the military’s shelling and crossed the border to the Thai side, as well as people who have arrived at Myanmar’s borderlands across parts of Thailand, in search of safer, if temporary and uncertain, refuge, amid the junta’s brutal crackdown on protesters and dissenters.

This past week till 30 April, 2,000 people from Mutraw district in Karen state, just across the Thai border, crossed the Salween River to Thailand in the wake of continued air strikes by Myanmar.  The Karen Peace Support Network later said this number had exceeded 3,000. More such incidents are expected given that Karen fighters have sided with the broad-based movement opposed to the Feb 1 military takeover in the country.

“The situation in Myanmar remains volatile, and we have seen increased displacement both within Myanmar and to neighbouring countries,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific said in emailed replies to the Reporting ASEAN series.

At the same time, Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. What does this mean for those whose life and safety are under threat after the February coup, and arrive in next-door countries such as Thailand? How would they be able to seek refuge under international law as well as under real-life circumstances?

UNHCR Asia-Pacific in Bangkok discusses these in the conversation below. Our takeaways from these replies? First, international legal and humanitarian principles, including on non-refoulement, exist and apply to states even if they are not signatories to the Refugee Convention and related instruments. In other words, non-ratification does not pose a barrier to how a state responds to a refugee situation.

Second, where there is a “large-scale influx” of people fleeing conflict, refugee determination can be done on a ‘prima facie’ basis, which allows protection and assistance based on the recognition of the readily apparent, objective circumstances in the country of origin giving rise to the exodus.

Third, even if a person gets refugee status, it is a difficult time to be one because UNHCR figures for 2020 show that only 1.58% of the world’s refugees gets resettled.

While new displacements occurred after the February coup, these were in addition to those already happening in several regions of Myanmar, such as in its southeast and north, even before the National League of Democracy-led government was overthrown.

Some 40,000 people have been displaced since December due to armed clashes between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Liberation Army, as well as the Myanmar military’s “indiscriminate attacks” on civilian areas, according to the April 30 Humanitarian Update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Myanmar.

Various humanitarian groups have, for decades, worked with asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people at the Thai-Myanmar border and interact with the Thai government and the UNHCR, among others.

Question: The UNHCR recently urged neighbouring countries not to send back people fleeing Myanmar, pointing out that the principles and international laws around non-refoulement are "binding" on all states (outside the 1951 Refugee Convention). Could you explain what this commitment is like?

UNHCR: The principle of non-refoulement – the prohibition on forcible returns of individuals to countries or territories where their lives or freedoms may be threatened – is a cornerstone of international refugee law. The prohibition on refoulement is stipulated under Article 33(1) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention).

It is also a rule of customary international law, and as such, is binding on all states, regardless of whether they are States Parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Other than the 1951 Refugee Convention, the prohibition on refoulement is also articulated in a range of international human rights instruments.  . . .The principle of non-refoulement is additionally included and given force in various regional human rights instruments.

Question: If a state that people are seeking asylum/safety/refuge in is not a signatory to the convention, what is the most that UNHCR can do/take action on, and what can it not do? Assuming that a person is able to get to the border or to a next-door country, can he/she still seek assistance from UNHCR regardless of whether that state is a party to the refugee convention? 

UNHCR: UNHCR engages with States throughout the world to provide assistance and protection to refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons. This includes cooperation and collaboration with countries which are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This includes many of the countries hosting large numbers of refugees, globally.

The primary responsibility for processing asylum claims, including for determining refugee status, rests with States, although UNHCR may conduct refugee status determination procedures under its mandate, and also does so on behalf of, or jointly with the authorities of certain countries.

In certain situations, including where there is a large-scale influx of refugees and individual status determination is not possible or practical, refugees may also be recognised on a prima facie basis.

Question: How would UNHCR define what it calls humane border practices” that are pragmatic given the concerns about an exodus amid the COVID-19 pandemic? 

UNHCR: Across the world, we have seen that it is possible to both ensure access to asylum while protecting public health. States can, for example, imposes measures at the border such as health screening, testing, quarantine and self-isolation, in order to manage health risks while also respecting the principle that no one should be returned to a place where their safety or freedom may be at risk.

Question: What is UNHCR's view looking ahead about the numbers of people fleeing Myanmar, compared to after 1988? 

UNHCR: The situation in Myanmar remains volatile, and we have seen increased displacement both within Myanmar and to neighbouring countries.

As you might have seen, a few weeks ago Gillian Triggs, UNHCRs Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, released a news comment urging countries across the region to offer refuge and protection to all those seeking safety. UNHCR and partner organisations stand ready to increase support to States to ensure that refugees receive the protection they need.

Question: How does the resettlement option look like? The figures of resettlement from the nine camps for Myanmar’s refugees in Thailand have been falling sharply and the statistic of up to 99% of the world’s refugees not getting resettled seems not too encouraging.

UNHCR: As you might have seen from recent statistics released by UNHCR, there are an estimated 1.44 million refugees in need globally. Given the low number of resettlement places relative to the overall refugee population, resettlement is therefore only an option for the most limited number of refugees.

In addition to urging states to increase their resettlement quotas, UNHCR is also continuing to advocate for labour and education pathways for refugees to travel to third countries, as well as for increased inclusion of refugees in countries of asylum.

Question: The issue of asylum seekers/refugees from Myanmar has been there for more than three decades. Looking back, what insights about the future does this past experience tell us - about how the push factor for refugees and conflict plays out over time? 

UNHCR: No one chooses to be a refugee. When their lives and freedoms are at risk, people will flee to ensure their survival. It is therefore vital that anyone seeking asylum is able to access it, and that they are able to receive protection and assistance while they are displaced.

Question: How have you found the response to UNHCR's calls for donations for the Rohingyas thus far, and does UNHCR see a need to organise a similar campaign at some point after the Myanmar coup?

UNHCR: UNHCR has appreciated the support of the international community, including the general public, to the Rohingya refugee response in Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh. Any further needs in relation to the situation in Myanmar, and elsewhere in the region, will be communicated as they arise.

(Note:According to the April Myanmar Humanitarian Update by the UN, only 12% of the $276.5 million US dollars needed in this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan has been covered so far, and it thus “remains severely underfunded”.)

*This feature is part of the Reporting ASEAN series.

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