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Uncertain future for Myanmar’s returning refugees

MANDALAY (UCAN): More than 300 refugees from Myanmar, who have been living in camps in Thailand, have returned home, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), amid concerns over a scarcity of jobs and other barriers to rebuilding their lives.
About 100,000 refugees live in nine camps in Thailand along the border with Myanmar. Most are ethnic minority Karen from eastern Myanmar, who fled conflict and persecution, sometimes decades ago, during sustained military offensives against Karen guerillas in the early 1980s.
The 300 refugees left six camps in early July and crossed into Myanmar’s Kayin and Kayah states. They are the fourth batch to return since 2016 in a process coordinated by the Thai and Myanmese governments and supported by the UNHCR.
“Improved conditions in parts of southeast Myanmar have led to a number of refugees in Thai camps wishing to return home, many of whom have been displaced for decades,” the UNHCR said in a statement on July 1.
They were received by Myanmese authorities and assisted at reception centres, from where they will go on to their final destinations in nine states and regions, the statement said.
Johan Cels, the UNHCR representative in Myanmar, said the process has grown more efficient, enabling refugees to return within a matter of months following their application.
But the refugees still face challenges resettling including a lack of job opportunities and security concerns following sporadic clashes between rebels and the army in their villages of origin.
Father Paul Thar San, director of Karuna (Caritas) in Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin State, said that despite the challenges, the refugees were left with little choice but to return home.
“For the refugees in Thailand, they have few options to choose as funding from international donors has been decreasing year by year,” Father Thar San said.
Major foreign donors have cut funding for the Thai camps in recent years, according to rights groups, some in favour of funding a formal, government-backed peace process inside Myanmar with rebel groups.
Father Thar San said Karuna has taught agricultural skills to refugees who have returned to Lay Kay Kaw village, near Myawaddy town in Kayin State.
In recent years, about 300 refugees have settled in the village, managed by the Karen National Union (KNU) which signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the government in 2015. The model village has received funding from the non-profit Japanese Nippon Foundation. 
Programmes to repatriate refugees have increased since Aung San Suu Kyi and her party took office in 2016, ending decades of military rule. Her government has made ending the long-running insurgencies with ethnic minority guerrilla groups a priority.
But clashes still flare up in ethnic areas. A lack of infrastructure and other development and employment opportunities are also reasons why displaced people are reluctant to return home.
The batches of returning refugees are separate from the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims languishing in camps in Bangladesh. 

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