Top UNHCR official finds "progress overall" on visit to Thailand, Laos
BANGKOK, Thailand, May 3 (UNHCR) - A top UNHCR official on Thursday applauded Thailand's recent issuance of identity cards to 85,000 refugees in government-run camps and called on the authorities to allow them further opportunities to farm and work outside the camps.
Erika Feller, the UN refugee agency's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, also reported some progress on resolving the stalemate over 155 Lao Hmong who have been in detention on the Thai side of the border with Laos since being rounded up for deportation last November.
Speaking to journalists in Bangkok at the end of an eight-day visit to Thailand and Laos, Feller summed up her trip as "positive overall, progress overall, and the future looks a lot better for a lot of people."
During her stay, Feller visited Tham Hin refugee camp, home to about 7,300 of the 140,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand. She said the atmosphere had improved considerably since she was last in the camp two years ago - mainly because refugees have begun to depart for resettlement in the United States.
Resettlement has given people hope for the future beyond the camp, she told a press conference at The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand.
Some 8,700 refugees have departed from Thailand for third countries since 2004, after 15 years when no one had been allowed to leave. A further 10,000 should be resettled this year. "Resettlement availability is an exceedingly valuable and important development," Feller said.
At the same time, she said, the Thai government has begun to allow skills training and more education in all nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
An important step was the recent issuance of Thai government identity cards to 85,000 refugees. Identity cards are not only an important protection tool, Feller said, but gave refugees "confidence to look at self-sufficiency options inside and outside the camp."
Unfortunately, she said, after the visit of High Commissioner António Guterres last year, Thailand had not done as much as had been expected to increase opportunities for refugees to work outside the camps.
She added that the UN refugee agency, as a general principle, does not favour closed camps - such as those run by the Thai government - because they make refugees dependent on hand-outs. "We advocate self-sufficiency possibilities," she said.
Feller, who went to Vientiane in Laos for one day of talks with Lao officials, also reported cautious optimism on the issue of the 155 Lao Hmong recognized refugees being held in the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre in Thailand.
She said she understood the concerns of both governments: not to reward people smuggling and not to encourage migrants to leave Laos in hopes of being resettled to third countries from Thailand.
Feller said Thailand and Laos would meet within the coming weeks to implement a border agreement and she said she had received assurances the two countries "will look carefully at the concerns of UNHCR in the context of the best solution. All in all, my summary of the discussions would be positive and hopeful."
In fact, Feller said, Laos was more open to discussing the issue than she had anticipated. "I believe - and I hope I am not wrong - for the 155, the humanitarian aspects are to the fore."
By Kitty McKinsey in Bangkok, Thailand