Thousands of refugees who fled Burma for safety in Thailand after their country's junta launched a military offensive could be forced to return home where they could face torture or even death, campaigners believe.
Activists say that up to 3,000 ethnic Karen, who were forced from eastern Burma last summer, could be "voluntarily repatriated" as early as today. While the Thai authorities insist that no one will be forced to return to Burma against their will, they have said that those who want to go home could start returning immediately. It has been claimed that officials have already been putting pressure on some of the refugees.
"Sending these refugees back to Burma is sending them back to possible death, slave labour or forced recruitment as soldiers," said Zoya Phan, of the Burma Campaign UK. "Over the past 25 years Thailand has earned the respect of the international community by giving shelter to refugees fleeing abuses in Burma. If refugees are now forced to return it will not only be morally unacceptable, it will also damage the reputation of Thailand in the eyes of the world."
The ethnic Karen of eastern Burma have long struggled, unsuccessfully, to create their own federal state. They have faced sustained hostility from the Burmese military, and also from certain Karen groups which have allied themselves with the junta, most noticeably the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
Over the past two decades, about 100,000 Karen refugees have taken shelter in camps strung along the Thailand-Burma border. One camp, Mae La, holds more than 40,000 people. Aid groups believe that another half a million Karen are displaced inside eastern Burma.
Human rights groups and the UN have for a long time accused the Burmese government of torturing, killing and raping Karen civilians while trying to crush those fighting for a measure of autonomy.
During the Second World War, many ethnic Karen joined forces with the British to oppose Japanese troops seizing control. They were encouraged to believe that the reward for their loyalty would be their own state. But the promise was never fulfilled.
Activists say the area in Burma's Karen state to which the refugees would be made to return is littered with landmines. Two weeks ago a pregnant woman who had returned stepped on a landmine and was seriously injured.
They also warn that the area is largely controlled by the DKBA, which is accused of carrying out widespread abuses against civilians, including forced labour, executions and torture.
Speaking last night from the one of the camps, K'naw Paw of the Karen Women's Organisation, a group working with the refugees, said: "We have not yet received any update from the Thai authorities. The fear is that the move to return people will begin tomorrow. People are very frightened."
Colonel Noppadol Watcharajitbaworn, the military commander in the Thai province of Tak where the refugees are sheltering, told the Associated Press that a first batch of 30 families – about 100 people in all – had volunteered to return to their village and would be sent back today.
"There is no forced repatriation as it's not our policy," he said. "The commander of Thailand's Third Army has given assurances that these refugees are volunteering. We will not force them back if they don't volunteer to go."
But activists say the dangers are too high. Benedict Rogers, of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: "These people must not be returned until they can do so safely, and that will only be possible when Burma is free and at peace."