CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Ninety-three Myanmar refugees from five camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border returned to their homes on Monday through a voluntary repatriation program facilitated by the UNHCR, and the Thai and Myanmar governments.

This is the second phase of repatriation for refugees who fled clashes between Tatmadaw troops and the ethnic Karen and Karenni armed groups in southeastern Myanmar decades ago. In October 2016, 71 people were repatriated through official channels to pilot the return program.

There were nearly 150,000 refugees along the Thailand-Myanmar border in 2012 and nearly 100,000 refugees still remain in nine camps, according to the UNHCR.

The 93 returnees were from the Mae La, Umpiem and Nu Po refugee camps in Tak Province; Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Mae Hong Song; and Ban Don Yang camp in Kanchanaburi Township, according to the UNHCR Thailand.

Twenty of the refugees were repatriated through Mae Hong Song to Karenni State, while the others returned through Myawaddy, Karen State.

They were welcomed by Myanmar government officials led by Karen State Chief Minister Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint in Myawaddy on Monday. Some will proceed to Yangon, Bago and Sagaing regions.

According to Hannah Macdonald, the associate external relations officer of the UNHCR in Bangkok, the UNHCR and partner organizations provided the returnees with assistance packages, which included food, mosquito nets and sanitary kits for women, travel bags, hygiene kits, transportation, as well as cash for integration in their initial months of return.

Macdonald said the current repatriation process only takes place at the request of refugees and that the UNHCR then supports their voluntary return. The UNHCR provides counseling to families to ensure their decision is voluntary and that information on available services upon their return is provided.

The UN agency opened voluntary repatriation centers and began collecting registration information in 2016. After repatriation, the UNHCR in Myanmar monitors the returnees closely and maintains contact with them, said the UNHCR spokesperson.

“Of course, the number in each return will be driven by the wishes of the refugees and also the environment and whether we can support a safe and dignified voluntary return. Camp leaders suggested that around 10,000 refugees are currently interested in facilitated returns,” she told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

“Refugees are fully capable of making their own decisions,” she said, with the UNHCR providing support for “each of these people who have the right to return to their country of citizenship.”

The UNHCR also said in a press release on Tuesday: “In south-eastern Myanmar, conditions allow for the UNHCR to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees from Thailand to that area. In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, however, UNHCR believes that the situation is not yet conducive for the return of Rohingya refugees.”

More Voluntary Returnees Without UN Support

However, many refugees have chosen to return to their homes through processes not supported by the government or UNHCR.

From 2012 until today, some 18,000 refugees returned without government assistance to their homes in southeastern Myanmar, according to The Border Consortium (TBC), an INGO supporting nutrition, shelter and livelihood support programs in the camps. TBC provides support to some 93,000 people in nine camps, as well as to internally displaced people in southeastern Myanmar.

In 2017 alone, 4,095 people from nine refugee camps went back to their home villages on their own, said Sally Thompson, the executive director of TBC.

She said, “While we encourage people to go through the system through the UNHCR facilitated return process, we also recognize that there are many people who at the moment choose not to go back, largely because they don’t want to be identified and when they are ready to go back, they want to leave and move forward and not wait for a long time to be approved by the government.”

Furthermore, ongoing security concerns – including no sign of demining and no agreement between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups to stop planting landmines – contributes to the hesitancy surrounding refugee returns.

Thompson said it is sometimes difficult to get refugees to go through official channels, but that the official return procedures include awareness education on landmines.

Despite efforts by the Thailand and Myanmar governments to bring the refugees home, recent Tatmadaw troop deployment in Karen State’s Papun district over the rebuilding of old road resulted in fighting between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Tatmadaw troops in early March and displaced more than 2,000 locals into the jungle.

Likewise, Thompson said, refugees from Karenni State also fear for their security after reports of Tatmadaw troops killing Karenni National Progressive Party soldiers at KNPP checkpoints in Loikaw in December 2017.

“This ongoing militarization in the southeast does not bring any confidence to the refugees for their return,” she added.

The UNHCR hopes for more voluntary returns through its facilitated process, said Hannah Macdonald, adding that it is working together and advocating with both governments “so that facilitated returns can be carried out in a more efficient and flexible manner.”

During a bilateral meeting between Myanmar and Thailand in late March, the two governments agreed to facilitate returns twice a year.

But the governments have not yet set a date for the third repatriation.

The government-led facilitated process is “very new and very evolving, so we still are trying to work out the best way to do it. … We hope as the process is improved [when it will become simpler, faster and more frequent], more refugees will return through the official process,” added Ms. Hannah.