"Hallelujah": Myanmar refugees can now prove their identity in Thailand
A US$1 million UNHCR programme provides Thai government identification cards to refugees in nine camps; the UN refugee agency hopes it's just the first step towards relaxing rules that have kept 140,000 refugees locked up for nearly two decades.
THAM HIN REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, April 12 (UNHCR) - Gay Htoo, a 38-year-old Karen refugee, praised the Lord for an unaccustomed feeling of security when he received his new identity card on Thursday.
"The card indicates my refugee status and if I am arrested, I know I will be returned to the camp safely instead of being sent to the Myanmar border," the Christian pastor said. "Hallelujah."
Distribution of Thai government identification cards began in two camps - Ban Don Yong and Tham Hin - in western Thailand along the Myanmar border this week, the culmination of three years of work by the UN refugee agency. Under the US$1-million programme, some 88,000 refugees should get the crucial plastic cards this month.
Htoo hopes the card will prevent refugee families becoming separated, as has happened to some in his congregation when they ventured out without permission and then vanished.
"The ID cards are an important way of improving protection of refugees, because the most basic element of protection is being able to prove your identity," said UNHCR Representative in Thailand Hasim Utkan. "At the same time, we hope the ID cards will be only the first step in a series of measures that will open up the closed camps where refugees have been living for almost two decades."
In Thailand, the 140,000 refugees - mostly from Myanmar - who live in nine government-run camps along the border with Myanmar are not officially allowed to leave the camps.
On his visit to the country last year, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres urged the Thai government to give refugees greater freedom of movement, especially to work outside the camps in Thailand's labour-short economy. Guterres stressed that many refugees are already working illegally, and said they should be given a legal opportunity to build a better life.
If the government does allow refugees to work legally outside the camps, the ID cards will enable them quickly to prove their identity and special protection status if caught up in one of the country's periodic crackdowns on illegal migrants.
The ID cards, issued by Thailand's Department of Provincial Administration to all refugees over the age of 12, are the end product of the US$1 million computerised data project funded by the UNHCR.
During the month of April, the government plans to distribute about 88,000 cards; new ones will be issued later as children turn 12, or as new refugees are recognised by the government's provincial admissions boards.
The cards, which come with a photo and a magnetic strip, will tell both UNHCR and Thai officials the name and age of the refugee, as well as the camp where he or she is registered. The left and right thumbprints are also encoded on the magnetic strip.
Refugee Ba Bar, a 46-year-old labourer, expressed confidence that the ID cards would improve his security and life, though he confessed he wasn't sure how. At least, he said, "the ID card is better than a paper registration form."
Representative Utkan stressed that UNHCR was "pleased that we have made progress with the Thai government on some of the issues the High Commissioner discussed on his visit last August, such as ID cards and greater education opportunities within the camp, including Thai-language training. "Now," he added, "we hope for some relaxation of the regulations that have kept refugees locked up for so long."
By Bola Han in Tham Hin
and Kitty McKinsey in Bangkok, Thailand