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In Thai camps, legal centres hold out hope for greater justice


In Thai camps, legal centres hold out hope for greater justice

The UN refugee agency has opened the first of seven planned legal assistance centres in refugee camps in Thailand, sparking hopes that tens of thousands of Burmese refugees will get greater justice for the rapes and other violent crimes that plague the closed camps.
22 November 2006
Thai government officials (in yellow shirts) help open Ban Mae Nai Soi camp's legal assistance centre, the first of its kind in the world.

BAN MAE NAI SOI CAMP, Thailand, November 22 (UNHCR) - With the opening Wednesday of the first of seven planned legal assistance centres, tens of thousands of Burmese refugees in Thailand should soon have the hope of greater access to justice for the violent crimes that plague border camps.

"The Legal Assistance Centre project is the first of its kind - not only in refugee camps in Thailand, but around the world," UNHCR Regional Representative Hasim Utkan said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at this camp near Mae Hong Son in north-western Thailand, attended by Thai government officials. "The overall goal of the project is to promote the rule of law and improve access to the Thai justice system in refugee camps."

The seven centres, scheduled to be opened within a year in three refugee camps housing 70,000 refugees, are intended to provide individual counselling for camp residents who have suffered rights violations or have been implicated in crimes. They should also function as a hub for sharing and disseminating information on human rights, protection and the legal process.

The legal aid project, part of the UN refugee agency's work to help improve the administration of justice in Thailand, is funded by the Italian government and the centres will be run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

In Thailand, the nine refugee camps along the border with Myanmar - home to 140,000 refugees - are run by the Thai government. Refugees are not at liberty to go outside the camps, and UNHCR is not allowed to keep staff in the camps overnight, when many of the rapes and domestic assaults occur.

"These centres will act as UNHCR's eyes and ears in the camps," said Kirsten Young, UNHCR's regional assistant representative for protection, who has overseen the project. "They will also help to channel cases to the Thai justice system, as well as work on building the capacity of the refugee traditional justice mechanisms to handle cases in a manner consistent with basic human right principles," Young added.

Because refugees are not allowed to leave overcrowded camps or to work legally inside the camps, the pressures of an idle life often lead to alcohol abuse, drug use and domestic violence.

A UNHCR report shows that between 2003 and this year more than 350 serious crimes were reported in the nine camps. Rape and domestic violence were the most common form of violent crime - with 50 percent of all rapes being perpetrated against children. In four out of five murders, no arrests were made, even when the identity of the killer was known.

In a separate survey conducted two months ago by IRC, 63 percent of residents in three Thai refugee camps said they had serious concerns for their safety in the camps. However, they appeared to have little confidence in Thai justice, preferring traditional justice procedures.

Overwhelmingly, refugees regard the camp committee - composed of their own representatives - as the proper forum to deal with murder, and only 11 percent see this as a matter for the Thai courts.

"An alarming number of respondents to the survey - 30 percent - think a crime as serious as murder should be resolved at an even lower level, by the refugee representative of the affected section within the camp," said Young. "Although traditional forms of justice and mediation are appropriate for handling some offences, crimes as serious as murder should definitely be brought to the Thai courts."

At the same time, refugees surveyed by IRC said they favoured the death sentence or long imprisonment for murders - sentences the camp committee and section leaders have no power to carry out.

Two pretty Burmese girls look after their siblings in Ban Mae Nai Soi camp. They appear cheerful, but many refugee women and girls are victims of rape and domestic violence.

The legal assistance centres aim to increase refugees' knowledge of Thai law, understanding of the legal system and their responsibilities under Thai law. The centres will work closely with justice authorities, camp leaders, community-based organisations and others - both inside and outside the camps - to make sure refugee rights are respected.

With the first centre now open, the government on Wednesday unexpectedly expressed reservations about the rules under which the centres will operate. "We may only be in the foothills, rather than at the top of the mountain," said Utkan. "There are still some issues to be worked out, but we hope these centres will be a big step forward in justice for refugees."

By Kitty McKinsey in Ban Mae Nai Soi Camp, Thailand