BANGKOK — An announcement by Thailand military government of plans to repatriate more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled violence and conflict across the border in recent decades has spread concerns among rights groups regarding the safety of refugees.
"We are not at the stage where we will deport people because we must first verify the nationality of those in the camps," army deputy spokesman Veerachon Sukhontapatipak told Reuters on Monday, July 14.
"Once that is done we will find ways to send them back. There are around 100,000 people who have been living in the camps for many years without freedom.
"Thailand and Myanmar [Burma] will help facilitate their smooth return," he added.
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims are facing a catalogue of discrimination in their homeland.
They have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
The Burmese government as well as the Buddhist majority refuse to recognize the term "Rohingya", referring to them as "Bengalis".
In July 2012, Burmese President Thein Sein said that Rohingyas should be settled in a third country.
Fleeing state-sponsored persecution, an estimated 120,000 Burmese refugees fled to live in 10 camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, according to The Border Consortium, which coordinates NGO activity in the camps.
Many fled persecution and ethnic wars as well as poverty and have lived in the camps with no legal means of making an income.
On its part, Thailand has not encouraged the immigration of Rohingya Muslims, considering them to be almost exclusively economic migrants.
Last May, Thailand's military overthrew the remnants of an elected government after months of sometimes violent street protests.
Its National Council for Peace and Order has rolled out a raft of tough measures it says are needed to restore order and has promised a return to democracy next year.
Commenting on the Thai decision, non-governmental organizations said they were concerned by a lack of infrastructure to help returnees rebuild their lives.
"The authorities said this time they are going to be very strict. It seems like they're really pushing for repatriation," said an aid worker who has been helping the refugees, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
"The situation in the camps is very tense because people don't know what's going to happen."
Activist, Bo Kyi, a campaigner for the release of political prisoners in Burma, said security remained fragile in the border regions.
"Sending back refugees to Burma is really dangerous for most of the refugees because Burma did not get peace and we don't know [when] there will be another conflict in Karen state," Kyi told Voice of America.
"Burma is not ready [with] job creation for those returning refugees, and then land confiscation also landmine problems are not over yet. Therefore I have great concern," he said.
Debbie Stothard, spokeswoman for the rights group, Alternative ASEAN Network, said the Thai military has shown resolve to settle the refugee issue since seizing power in May.
"Now I think there's quite a strong fear that this is going to happen especially because the UN [United Nations] and international agencies have been working on this," she said."But the situation is still extremely fragile and dangerous. We're actually seeing more people displaced. And if you happen to be a refugee of Muslim background then you are particularly vulnerable," she said.