2 May 09 - For decades or more remote Burmese refugee camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border have been in a kind of legal limbo, with camp leaders more or less administering justice on an ad hoc basis, say aid workers.
IRIN, Mae La - However in recent years, the Thai authorities have shown an increased willingness to assert the rule of law in these camps.
In 2006 the government gave the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) permission to assess the legal process and camp residents’ understanding of the law and their responsibilities. In the following year LAC was allowed to provide legal assistance in the camps.
LAC is run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) currently with the support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“It’s the first time such a Centre has been established in a refugee camp in the world,” said Shane Scanlon, the LAC project coordinator, “and it is a global pilot project for both IRC and UNHCR.”
The Centre is currently operating in three refugee camps - Mae La in Tak Province, and Ban Mai Nai Son and Ban Mae Surin in Mae Hong Son Province. They have a total population of over 70,000 registered and non-registered refugees, most of whom are Karen, but include as well Karenni, Shan, Chin and other ethnic groups. In its initial surveys LAC found the legal situation dire. Most refugees did not know Thai law applied to them, nor what the laws were, Scanlon told IRIN.
“Huge barriers existed from the outset for refugees to access the justice system, including language barriers in understanding the legal system,” he said, adding:
“The camp communities pretty much governed themselves.”
“Justice was being administered practically exclusively by the community leadership,” according to one UNHCR staff member knowledgeable of the situation in 2006, “and such justice was not up to international standards.”
Scanlon told IRIN that LAC is working in partnership with UNHCR and the Ministry of the Interior, as well as with civil society organisations such as the Lawyers Council of Thailand in certain cases, to manage serious criminal cases.
LAC has a team of five specially trained lawyers to guide and advise victims and defendants. “Since it began operations, the Centre has provided legal counsel and support to more than 700 camp residents in cases ranging from serious crimes - like murder, human trafficking and rape - to civil cases involving debt and money lending contract disputes and accident compensation,” according to LAC.
Prior to 2006 in the three camps, according to UNHCR, only a handful of serious crimes were referred to the Thai justice system. Between August 2007, when the project became operational, and the end of 2008, 80 serious cases were handled by LAC and referred to the appropriate Thai authorities, and 49 referred to the Thai justice system.
LAC’s work has not gone unnoticed in the camps. “LAC has monitored crimes which occur within the camps and has helped to refer serious cases to the Thai justice system, negotiating between the appropriate Thai authorities and the refugees,” according to Khun Lay Maung, Karenni refugee committee chairperson.
Most people referred to LAC are survivors of domestic abuse, and the camp leadership has asked that LAC lead a review of the way the camp justice system can adequately respond to domestic violence.
Myint Aye, chairwomen of the sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) committee in Mae La, said: “Many of our cases are criminal, most are rape cases… These we send to LAC.” She said SGBV and other groups were working alongside LAC in giving awareness training in schools and to community-based organisations throughout the camps.
A major role for LAC, according to Scanlon, is informing camp residents of the existing laws and their rights and responsibilities. More than 20 LAC paralegals - camp residents who have gone through a year’s training - advise individuals, community groups and schools about the existing laws and their rights and responsibilities. LAC also uses community theatre, outreach campaigns and civic education classes to get its message across.
“The refugee community is now more aware of the law, especially Thai law, and knows what legal and justice steps are possible, according to Karenni Refugee Committee Chairperson Khun Lay Maung, who added: “LAC organises joint workshops between the Thai authorities and community based organisations within the camp." The benefits of this legal education are not just short term, Joel Harding, IRC’s senior protection officer, told IRIN.
“Some refugees will stay in Thailand and their legal knowledge will be invaluable. Others will resettle in a third country or perhaps eventually return home,” he said, “and these legal principles, most of which are universal, will assist them well. And for those who remain in the camps for long periods, they are better prepared to seek and maintain justice in their communities.”
LAC is hopeful that in 2010, with government authorisation, it will move into other camps, including Umpium and Nupo.