04/14/2011, 00.00
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Bangkok wants to close Burmese refugee camps as it discusses the issue with Myanmar

Nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border shelter 140,000 people from various ethnic groups, living in harsh conditions. Many have taken part in armed conflict with the Myanmar government over the years. The United Nations says repatriations should be “absolutely” voluntary.
Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The governments of Thailand and Myanmar are discussing the closure of nine Burmese refugee camps currently operating along their common border. Some 140,000 people of different ethnic background are sheltered in these camps. No final decision has been made to shut them down but Thai authorities announced that their plan includes helping refugees find jobs. Some of the refugees have been in the camps for more than 20 years.

“The Thai government will help provide training in education and human resources development as well as improve their quality of life to prepare them to return to Burma so they can play constructive roles in their country,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

The issue was addressed on the sidelines of a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.

Thailand's National Security Council Chief Thawil Pliensri said the issue was discussed with the prime minister in Bangkok.

“I cannot say when we will close down the camps, but we intend to do it,” Pliensri said.

Most refugees belong to ethnic groups like the Karen who have been in armed conflict with various Burmese governments over the years.

Refugee life can be harsh. Refugees cannot work or leave the camps, which, at present, are run with the aid of international agencies.

The “solution is not forcing people to go back to a country that is still dangerous,” said Kitty McKinsey, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Agency in Bangkok. “What we would really like to see is that the returns are done in safety and dignity, and they absolutely have to be voluntary.”

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