22 November 2006 The United Nations today opened the first of seven legal assistance centres for tens of thousands of Burmese refugees living in neighbouring Thailand with the aim of providing justice to the victims of violent crimes that plague the border camps.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) regional representative Hasim Utkan described the centre at Ban Mae Nai Soi camp in north-western Thailand as the first of its kind – “not only in refugee camps in Thailand, but around the world.”
All seven centres – to be funded by Italy and run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – are scheduled to open over the next year in three refugee camps housing some 70,000 Burmese refugees near the border between Thailand and Myanmar.
Thailand, which runs the three camps and six others, does not allow refugees to move freely outside and UNHCR officials are not allowed in the camps overnight, when many of the violent crimes, especially the rapes and acts of domestic violence, occur.
A report from the UN refugee agency indicated that more than 350 serious crimes were reported across the nine camps between 2003 and this year, with rape and domestic violence the most common and children often the victims. In four out of five murders, the report added, no arrest was made, even when the identity of the killer was known.
A survey conducted in September by the IRC found that 63 per cent of residents in three of the camps had serious concerns about their safety, but also little confidence in the Thai justice system, preferring their own traditional procedures instead.
Kirsten Young, UNHCR regional assistant representative for protection, said the centres will act as the agency’s “eyes and ears in the camps. They will also help to channel cases to the Thai justice system, as well as work on building the capacity of the refugee traditional justice mechanisms to handle cases in a manner consistent with basic human rights principles.”
The centres are designed to act as an information hub on human rights, protection and the legal process, and also offer individual counselling for camp residents who have suffered human rights violations or been implicated in crimes.