The IRC Opens Landmark Legal Center for Burmese Refugees
The IRC this week opened a legal assistance center in a refugee camp near the town of Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand. The office, which will promote legal awareness and access to justice for Burmese refugees in Thailand, is the first program ever to offer organized legal services in a refugee camp.
“We are breaking new ground,” says the IRC’s Joel Harding, who coordinates the program. “The IRC and other organizations are providing legal services to displaced people elsewhere. But it has never happened in a refugee camp.”
The center is the first of several planned legal offices which will assist some 70,000 refugees in three camps along the Thailand-Burma border.
“These offices will help increase refugees’ knowledge about their rights and responsibilities under Thai law and camp rules through individual counseling,” Harding says. “From the centers, we will also be able to refer serious criminal cases to Thai courts as well as training camp authorities in legal issues. Our staff will then monitor the cases and help refugees, many of whom are illiterate, through the legal process.”
Among refugees in the camps, knowledge of the Thai legal system, camp rules and regulations, and refugee rights is minimal. A survey carried out in the camps by IRC legal staff two months ago show that almost half of the camp population does not understand the rules applied by the local camp authorities. A further 35 percent said that they understand the rules only occasionally
“The majority of the camp population believes that Thai law does not apply to them, or that it applies only sometimes. Others have no idea at all,” Harding adds. “The center will be a place where people can walk in to get information on the laws that affect their lives.”
The survey also indicates that security is a huge concern in the camps. Some 20 percent of the population said that they never feel safe in the camp. An additional 43 percent said that they only feeling safe some of the time.
Nearly 150,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border. The majority in the Site 1 camp are Karenni. In addition, an estimated two million Burmese migrants, many illegal immigrants, work with menial jobs and live in constant fear of arrest and deportation in Thailand. The refugees here are not allowed to leave the camp without permission from the Thai authorities.
“Although there is a certain level of crime in these camps, people here are still relatively safe,” Harding explains. “But there are several factors contributing to people’s feeling of insecurity. The refugees find it difficult to access justice in the Thai system and are particularly vulnerable when they leave the camps to look for work. If they are abused in any way, there’s a sense among many that they do not know where to take their grievances.”
Speaking at a ceremony marking the opening on November 22, the IRC’s country director Art Carlson stressed the importance for any community member to know and understand the laws that apply to them.
“This is particularly the case for refugees,” Carlson added. “Their legal status is different to that of Thai citizens and as foreigners, they are less likely to know the law that applies to them during their stay in Thailand. As a result, refugees may more frequently find themselves on the wrong side of the law, facing legal problems. Ultimately, we believe that this project will increase the security and wellbeing of camp residents and their neighbors in Thai villages.”
Among the guests at the inauguration were refugees, senior members of the Thai government, the country representative of the UNHCR, which funds the project, and IRC staff members.