Like thousands of others fleeing growing violence after a military coup in Myanmar last February, Hay left his village for neighboring Thailand in search of a safe haven that does not exist. Returning to Myanmar would put her and her family in mortal danger. And yet, that’s precisely what Thai authorities – keen to jeopardize their relationship with Myanmar’s ruling military – tell them to do at least once a week, she says.
“When they told us to go back, we cried and explained why we couldn’t go home,” says Hay, who lives in a flimsy tent on the Moei River, which separates the two countries. The Associated Press is withholding Hay’s full name, along with the full names of the other refugees in this story, to protect them from retaliation by authorities. “Sometimes we go back to the Burmese side of the river. But I did not return to the village at all.
Although international refugee laws prohibit the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger, Thailand has nonetheless sent home thousands of people who fled escalating violence by the Burmese military, according to interviews with refugees, aid groups and the Thai authorities themselves. This has forced Hay and other refugees from Myanmar to ricochet back and forth between the two sides of the river as fighting in their home villages rages and retreats briefly.
“It’s that game of ping-pong,” says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long been the main provider of food, shelter and other forms of support for Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can’t keep going back and forth across the border. You have to be somewhere where it’s stable… And there’s absolutely no stability in Myanmar at the moment.
Since taking power last year, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,700 people, arrested more than 13,000 and systematically tortured children, women and men.
Thailand, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, insists that refugees from Myanmar voluntarily return to their beleaguered homeland. Thailand also insists it has complied with all international non-refoulement laws, which state that people should not be returned to a country where they would risk being tortured, punished or harmed.
“As the situation on the Burmese side of the border improved, the Thai authorities facilitated their voluntary return to the Burmese side,” said Tanee Sangrat, spokesperson for the Thai Foreign Ministry. “Thailand remains committed and will continue to uphold its longstanding humanitarian tradition, including the principle of non-refoulement, in assisting those in need.
Somchai Kitcharoenrungroj, governor of Thailand’s Tak province, where thousands of people from Myanmar have sought refuge, said many had crossed illegally when there was no fighting.
“We had to send them back as the laws said,” says Somchai. “When they faced threats and crossed here, we never refused to help them. We have provided them with all their basic needs in accordance with the international principle of human rights.
“For example,” he added, “last week we also found people crossing here illegally and we turned them away.”
More than half a million people have been displaced inside Myanmar and 48,000 have fled to neighboring countries since the military took over, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to the UNHCR, Thai government sources estimate that around 17,000 refugees from Myanmar have sought refuge in Thailand since the takeover. But only about 2,000 currently live on the Thai side of the border, according to the Thailand-Myanmar Border Command Center.
“UNHCR continues to advocate strongly that refugees fleeing conflict, widespread violence and persecution in Myanmar are not forcibly returned to a place where their lives and freedoms could be at risk,” the agency said.
Most of those fleeing clashes between the army and armed ethnic minority groups along the border have to ford the rivers separating the two countries, their belongings and babies balanced on their shoulders. Those who reach Thailand are barred from settling in the decades-old refugee camps that dot the region and are home to 90,000 people who left Myanmar years before the takeover.
Instead, they were relegated to crowded stables or rickety tents made of tarpaulin and bamboo. As there is a pause in the fighting, refugees and aid groups say, Thai authorities are pushing them back, despite the Burmese army taking villages, burning homes and laying landmines .
“I saw some of them forced into a car, down to the river and across to the other side,” said Phoe Thingyan, secretary of Thai aid group Overseas Irrawaddy Association.
In Myanmar’s border regions, ethnic minority armed groups have been fighting the central government for decades in an effort to gain greater autonomy, with more clashes following the military takeover. Despite some pauses, witnesses along the Thai border say the fighting there is now the worst in decades. At times gunfire, shelling and fighter jets have been audible from Thailand, and even houses on the Thai side of the river are shaking with the explosions.
Life along the river is grim and scary.
“It’s not far from the war zone,” says Naw Htoo Htoo, from the Karen ethnic group for human rights. “Elderly people and children are not comfortable in makeshift tents… There are illnesses not only caused by the weather, but also by COVID-19.
In December, Myint, 48, fled the small Karen town of Lay Kay Kaw, near the Thai border, with her husband and three children. Thai officials fired them. With few options, Myint and her family joined around 600 other people living near the river on the Myanmar side.
In February, heavy rains flooded their camp and Myint fears the impending monsoon season will make their already miserable situation even worse.
“I think the refugee camps will be in big trouble,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do but make our temporary tents a little stronger.”
On the Thai side of the river, Hay’s tent offers virtually no protection from the scorching sun, mosquitoes and torrential rain.
The family yearns for their home and cornfields near Lay Kay Kaw. On December 16, Hay and her husband grabbed their 3-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and ran amid a cacophony of gunfire. When they reached the river, the fighting was still so close that they knew they could not stay safely on the Myanmar side. And so they trudged through the water to Thailand.
“We want to go back but we don’t have a house,” she says.
There are no toilets and no way to earn money. Food and other supplies are scarce, but Thai authorities have refused to allow international NGOs and UNHCR access to the refugees.
“Thai authorities have said they have resources to respond, and INGOs and the UN will not have access to them,” says Thompson of the Border Consortium. “Thai authorities are making it a very basic, low-visibility response.”
Most of the help came from local Thai community groups. Phoe Thingyan of the Overseas Irrawaddy Association says his group sends 1,000 boxes of rice every morning and evening to the refugees, but had to ask the Thai military for permission to accept donations.
The Thai military won’t even acknowledge the existence of Myanmar refugees in Thailand because that alone might upset Myanmar’s military leaders, says Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights specialist with Asia-based group Fortify Rights. .
“The Thai army intends to control the situation, to control the narrative, because it is obvious that they have a political skin in the game, in what is happening in Myanmar,” he says. “They are very close to the Burmese junta authorities.”
Somchai, the Thai governor, seemed to allude to this: “When the fighting stopped, they had to go back,” he said of the refugees Thailand sent back. “Otherwise, it could be a sensitive issue for relations between the two countries.”
The Thai military declined to comment.
Those who remain in Thailand find themselves in not only physical but legal limbo, vulnerable to exploitation. A Myanmar refugee in Thailand who spoke to the AP said “police cards” – unofficial documents that allow displaced people to avoid arrest or deportation – are purchased monthly by middlemen for an average cost of 350 Thai baht ($10). The cards are marked with a photo or symbol indicating that the holders have paid the last monthly bribe.
Without these cards, refugees risk further harassment or possible arrest by Thai authorities.
“They will take you to the police station and they will check your papers, test your urine for drug use,” says the refugee, whose name is withheld by the AP for security reasons. “The police intimidate people, and cards are the easiest way to avoid that.”
Tanee, the Foreign Affairs spokesman, said the government “categorically denies” any extortion or bribery.
Although Win, 23, and his family initially pitched their tent on the Thai side of the river, Thai authorities quickly turned them away. The chemistry student now regularly crosses the river in chest-deep water to collect food, clothing and other items donated from the Thai side. Then he turns around and walks back to his campsite in Myanmar, where he lives alongside around 300 other refugees, including children and the elderly.
They survive, but barely. What he wants more than anything, he says, is the one thing he can’t have.
“I just want to go home,” he said. “I don’t want anything else.”
Gelineau reported from Sydney.