Refugees hit housing snag
Nearly 20 refugees repatriated from Thailand last week say they have made a “mistake” in coming home after they were informed that the government has not paid for their long-term accommodation.
MYANMAR refugees repatriated from Thailand last week say they already have regrets about their return following a disagreement with the government over the cost of their living quarters.
Last week the government oversaw the repatriation of 71 refugees from Thai border camps in the first official transfer organised by the two neighbouring countries since the mostly Karenni civilians began fleeing armed conflict in the 1990s.
But the 17 refugees who were sent to Yangon told The Myanmar Times yesterday that their homecoming has not been a happy one so far.
The regional government has arranged housing for the 17, as promised, but has told the four families they will have to purchase units in a low-cost apartment complex on the outskirts of the commercial capital.
Daw Khin San Yi, 59, a former political prisoner and refugee who returned from Nu Po camp in Tak province, told The Myanmar Times that the regional government must re-evaluate the refugees’ housing situation.
“We lived with difficulties in Thailand. We are not rich people and we have no money to pay for low-cost housing. I don’t understand why the government arranged that,” she said.
She added that she and her husband had been sheltering at the Nu Po camp since 2010. They agreed to return to Myanmar only after they heard that the National League for Democracy-led government would fully support their repatriation.
“We chose to return to Myanmar but I think we made a mistake. I thought the government had already arranged our accommodation,” she said.
The 17 refugees in Yangon arrived on October 27 and were provided temporary housing at a shelter in Mayangone township operated by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. They have been given a K3000 (US$2.33) daily stipend for living expenses.
According to the refugees, before they left Thailand the Thai government provided 8300 baht (US$238) per adult and 6500 baht per child. The Myanmar government offered K300,000 for each family unit. Each family also received K100,000 from the Myanmar Red Cross and K200,000 from Rakhine Ethnic Affairs Minister U Zaw Aye Maung.
But for their long-term accommodation, the regional government told the 17 refugees that housing was arranged at Shwe Linn Ban industrial zone in Hlaing Tharyar township, with each family required to buy their apartment at K9.8 million, payable in instalments over eight years.
“I think the refugees will need to have something else worked out for their accommodation. They refused to buy the low-cost housing. I don’t know what the government should do for them,” said U Soe Aung, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
Before the repatriation program began, Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement director general U Ko Ko Naing said the government was prepared to accommodate the returning refugees, who were driven out of Myanmar by conflict years ago. He said some would be staying at housing built by the the Department of Progress of Border Affairs and National Races (Na Ta La) in Myawady township, while others would return to their family homes if they preferred.
But the refugees said they were denied the option to stay at the Na Ta La housing.
Ko Nyan Myint, 42, who was also repatriated from the Nu Po camp, said officials told the refugees that only “conflict-affected people” could stay in the Na Ta La housing, a designation which apparently did not include the four Yangon families.
“Other refugees who are still living in Thailand shouldn’t return to our country. We made a mistake coming back and we don’t want any other refugees to make the same mistake,” he told The Myanmar Times.
Karen human rights groups had argued that the repatriation process was moving too quickly and should not be pushed until all details were finalised and the security of those returning could be guaranteed.
The housing problem is not the first snag in the process: The celebrated return last week was slightly dampened by the fact that 25 of the 96 individuals slated to return backed out of the arrangement at the 11th hour.
U Ko Ko Naing, director general of the social welfare ministry’s rescue department, blamed the regional government for the housing snafu.
“I heard that the [Yangon] Region government will negotiate with the refugees for their accommodation,” he said, adding that some of the refugees had fled for personal, political or business reasons that were not due to conflict, which made them ineligible for the Na Ta La housing.
“We didn’t meet with these refugees before their repatriation,” he admitted.
Another of the returned Yangon refugees, Daw Khin Ohmar Hlaing, 35, said the government should not call any more home from the camps if they are not prepared to help them get settled.
“I decided to return for medical treatment on my leg and so that my two children could be educated here. But I cannot start anything like that yet,” she said.
According to the Karen Human Rights Group, there are nine refugee camps on the border in Thailand, housing approximately 120,000 Myanmar nationals.
Refugees who were repatriated from the Thai border last week sit at a temporary shelter in Yangon yesterday.