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Suicide Rates on Rise among Myanmar Refugees in Thailand’s Biggest Camp, says UN Study

Collaborative efforts between nongovernmental groups and government agencies could help identify the cause and ways to prevent suicides

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Refugees shop for food in a market inside Mae La camp in Tak province, northwestern Thailand, June 2, 2012. Benarnews/RFA
  • The study found that only one person committed suicide in Mae La camp in 2014, but the number escalated to 14 each year in 2015 and 2016
  • During the same three-year period, 96 people attempted to kill themselves at the camp, the study said
  • Family conflicts, financial situations, alcohol and drug abuse and depression could have contributed to the rising figures

Myanmar, July 1, 2017: Suicide among Myanmar refugees in Thailand’s biggest camp increased at an alarming rate during the past two years, according to a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The study, which was released on Monday – the eve of World Refugee Day – found that only one person committed suicide in Mae La camp in 2014, but the number escalated to 14 each year in 2015 and 2016.

During the same three-year period, 96 people attempted to kill themselves at the camp, the study said.

“The trend is increasing in the past couple of years,” said Dana Graber Ladek, chief of IOM mission in Bangkok. “This actually needs more services, such as by counselors and psychiatrists in the camps, to prevent suicide.”

Mae La camp in Thasongyang district of Tak province, about 500 km (312 miles) north of Bangkok, harbors about 40,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen from eastern Myanmar. It is the largest of nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, where about 100,000 people resettled after the Myanmar military regime launched offensives against ethnic rebel forces during the 1980s.

Ladek said collaborative efforts between nongovernmental groups and government agencies could help identify the cause and ways to prevent suicides.

“The Interior Ministry of Thailand takes this refugee situation very seriously, and it’s not a situation that one agency can address,” Ladek told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. He added that the effort would require a collaborative approach on many different levels.

The study said no conclusive cause for the surge in suicides had been established. But, it said, family conflicts, financial situations, alcohol and drug abuse and depression could have contributed to the rising figures.

Middle-age people, mostly those who have spent their entire lives in the camp, were statistically at higher risk of suicide, the study said. It said the most common methods used were hanging and drinking herbicides which are easily available because many refugees work on farmlands.

ALSO READ: Thousands of Ethnic Lisu protest in Myanmar, demand Army to apologize for the Killings

Government officials respond

Officials of a Thai government agency that manages the camp said they were aware of the suicides. They responded by fielding psychiatrists who provided counseling to vulnerable individuals and set up checkpoints to stop drug trafficking into the camp.

“We have our representatives staying with refugees in the camp who observe and are ready to talk with them 24/7,” Kwanruen Srichan, director of Border and Refugee Affairs Section, told BenarNews during a phone interview.

“We are expecting that attempted and completed suicides would decline,” she said.

Thailand began hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s. More recently, Thailand has received populations threatened by armed conflict and ethnic persecution in Myanmar, according to Amnesty International (AI).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 80,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand had resettled in other countries since 2005. It said tens of thousands had returned to Myanmar after the new democratically elected government announced its commitment to voluntary refugee repatriation.

But the 100,000 refugees remaining in nine camps are facing reduced funding, decreased resettlement opportunity and poorer services, officials said.

“This is very complex,” Ladek said. “All the reasons are contributing” to the problem.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but officials said the country has been committed to providing the humanitarian needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

In addition to the 100,000 people living in refugee camps, AI said there were about 8,000 asylum seekers from more than 50 countries in Thailand.

Another 330 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers are being held in immigration detention centers in difficult living conditions and many have been forcibly repatriated.

On Tuesday, AI said that despite Thailand’s role in hosting and supporting large refugee populations, the nation had failed to consistently protect their rights.

“Refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand are not afforded any legal status under Thai law and remain extremely vulnerable to arrest, detention, forcible deportation and exploitation,” AI said in a statement.

-Benarnews/RFA

Next Story

Concerns Rise Over China’s Stand at United Nations Human Rights Council

China has passed human rights reviews twice before this one, while more than 120 countries Beijing's human rights record during the most recent process.

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The 22nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva on Feb. 25, 2013. RFA

Rights activists are increasingly worried that Beijing’s influence operations are having a negative impact on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which concludes its 40th session on Friday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) China director Sophie Richardson warned in an article this week that China is seeking to undermine the mission of the U.N. Human Rights Council from within.

She also cited HRW research in 2017 which reported threats and harassment of U.N. staff involved in human rights evaluation by Chinese officials.

“As we head towards the final phase of [China’s U.N. human rights review], ask yourself: What other government threatens #humanrights treaty body experts?” Richardson tweeted on Thursday.

“As an [Human Rights Council] member #China is expected to uphold highest standards,” she wrote in another tweet, referencing a report in The New York Times. “Instead it tells people that merely attending an event is a ‘hostile act.'”

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During the recent round, the Chinese government said it accepted most of the 346 human rights recommendations put forward by the council. VOA

According to HRW’s 2017 article based on a 97-page report: “Chinese officials have at times harassed and intimidated U.N. staff, experts on treaty bodies, and independent experts focusing on specific human rights issues.”

The 2014 death in detention of activist Cao Shunli, who was detained on her way to a U.N. human rights event in Geneva, also sent a “chilling” message to Chinese activists who may want to participate in the U.N. human rights process, the article said.

HRW isn’t the only human rights organization worried about Chinese influence at the U.N.

Renee Xia, who heads the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, reported from a side-event of the Human Rights Council conference in Geneva this week that it was “standing room only.”

“Strong show of interest despite #China urging countries not to attend,” Xia tweeted.

“The strong attendance was more remarkable esp. after #China officials went to many countries’ diplomats at the U.N., Geneva, to threaten them with “serious consequences” if they attended the side events,” she wrote in another tweet.

“#Bullying at the UN must stop!” she wrote.

‘So many restrictions’

Wang Dan, a former leader of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, is also in Geneva this week.

“To tell you the truth, my feelings during my two days here are that China has huge influence at the U.N.,” Wang told RFA.

“For example, at one side-event, it wasn’t just the Chinese delegation who spoke against [criticisms of Beijing’s rights record], but other countries came to speak in support of China’s position,” he said.

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“Many of the countries participating in the Human Rights Council are actually the ones that are carrying out the most violations of human rights, Pixabay

Wang said tight controls over public speech also make it less likely that the ruling Chinese Communist Party will have to face criticism of human rights violations coming from within its own borders.

“There are a lot of people online in China, but they are under so many restrictions,” he said. “You can’t mention the Tiananmen Massacre. You can’t mention [late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner] Liu Xiaobo. You can’t say this, you can’t say that.”

“I don’t think that’s how you define freedom … but then the Chinese point to the U.N. charter, which says that all member states must be respected,” he said.

‘Autocratic rule the default’

Veteran New York-based rights activist Liu Qing said the work of the council had become “unrecognizable” to him.

“Many of the countries participating in the Human Rights Council are actually the ones that are carrying out the most violations of human rights,” Liu told RFA.

“The only purpose of these countries in insinuating themselves into the Human Rights Council is to curb the positive role of the Human Rights Council and make autocratic rule the default setting on the international stage,” he said.

Amnesty International blogger Shao Jiang wrote in December 2018 that Beijing is reinterpreting universal human rights as merely the right to survival, freedom to access food, and regards other definitions of human rights as secondary to trade and economic development.

“The Chinese government has appointed government officials as independent experts into the UN’s Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, and the U.N. treaty bodies,” Shao said.

China has passed human rights reviews twice before this one, while more than 120 countries Beijing’s human rights record during the most recent process.

During the recent round, the Chinese government said it accepted most of the 346 human rights recommendations put forward by the council.

Also Read: Myanmar Government Calls Ethnic Armed Groups To Attend Collective Peace Discussions For The First Time

The United Nations now reports annually on government reprisals against human rights defenders participating in U.N. human rights efforts, Richardson wrote in an article in The Hill last December.

“China has topped the list of offenders in every report issued,” she said. (RFA)