UNHCR chief urges rich countries to open doors wider to refugees
THAM HIN REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand, August 29 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called on Tuesday for rich countries to grant significantly more refugees the chance to settle on their shores and enjoy "new opportunities for a new life."
"I appeal to the rich countries of the world to very strongly increase the resettlement opportunities around the world," he said, after touring this camp on the Thai-Myanmar border and listening to the concerns of ethnic Karen refugees who fled fighting in Myanmar nearly 10 years ago.
Guterres visited the Thai government's Tham Hin camp with US Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, head of the state department's bureau of population, refugees and migration. He thanked the United States warmly for welcoming tens of thousands of refugees every year.
He said that every year 70,000 refugees are resettled all over the world, adding that two-thirds of them go to the US. In comparison with more than eight million refugees, "the majority of them waiting years and years in refugee camps," and 200 million migrants worldwide, there is great scope for resettlement programmes to be strengthened, Guterres said.
The High Commissioner paid tribute to Sauerbrey for her key role in removing roadblocks to quick resettlement of the Karens in Tham Hin caused by US anti-terrorism legislation. He said no country need fear terrorism being imported by resettled refugees.
"Refugees are victims, not a threat," Guterres said. "They have been victims of conflict and persecution and sometimes they may be victims again if security concerns do not take into account their real situation."
Some 2,700 Karen refugees from Tham Hin are due to be resettled in the US by the end of this year. Sauerbrey assured the refugees that thousands more will go to the US next year from Tham Hin and other camps in Thailand. Nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border house 140,000 refugees.
"We encourage all who are interested to step forward [to apply for resettlement] and they will be welcome in the US," she told refugees, adding that her country accepted 54,000 refugees last year from 55 countries.
In this densely-packed camp nestled on remote jungle hills, the two officials visited the "departure lounge" - an open-air shed where luggage is weighed - to meet a group of 30 refugees preparing to leave for various states in America, including New York, Florida, Indiana and Texas.
Guterres and Sauerbrey then boarded the bus that was to take the cheerful refugees to their first way station en route to Bangkok's international airport for the flight to the other side of the world.
"It's very important for people who have lived for 10 years without freedom of movement, without employment, without any hopes for the future, to have a chance to start a new life," Guterres said as he got off the bus. "It's amazing how these people are looking forward with such a positive attitude, and they will contribute to development of the country where they will go."
Refugee leaders told the two visitors that they were grateful to the Thai government for giving them sanctuary, but pleaded for the right to move freely out of the camps without being subject to arrest and deportation, and for the right to work, support themselves and get access to higher education.
Guterres, on the second day of his four-day official visit to Thailand, assured the refugees these issues would be "very high on the agenda" for his discussions with the Thai government on Wednesday and Thursday,
Touring a library, medical centre and several schools in the camp, Guterres left the refugees with the wish that "your future will grant you what you could unfortunately not have in the past."
By Kitty McKinsey in Tham Hin Refugee Camp, Thailand