Thailand has given several thousand Burmese refugees a March 31 deadline to leave urban areas and move to special camps along the Thai-Burma border. Those failing to heed the order face repatriation if caught.
Thailand's tough new policy targets at least three thousand Burmese who have been living in urban areas - most of them in the capital Bangkok.
The United Nations recognizes these select refugees as "persons of concern" who are awaiting resettlement in Western nations. The government announced in July 2003 that these refugees would no longer be able to live in urban areas. Implementation of the policy was delayed amid U.N. pleas to extend the deadline.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has been careful not to criticize the Thai government plan, which it says breaks no international laws regarding the treatment of refugees.
But the refugee agency's regional representative, Kirsten Young, says the forced relocation to tightly regulated border camps will delay resettlement plans and expose the refugees to unnecessary hardship.
She said, "The move to the camps is absolutely undesirable. The camps are overcrowded, there's nowhere to put these people. People in the camps don't want them either, some of them have security and other reasons not to go to the camp…"
There are already around 140,000 refugees from Burma in camps along the border. Another one or two million Burmese nationals are believed to be living illegally in Thailand after fleeing economic hardship or persecution at home.
The Thai government allows international aid agencies to operate within the camps. But it says the United Nations will have to end its refugee assistance programs in Bangkok and other urban areas after the March 31st deadline. Kirsten Young says the United Nations is trying to warn the targeted refugees before it is too late.
She said. "We're concerned that if they don't get the message that they have to go to the camps, they will be considered illegal migrants and face arrest, detention and deportation…"
Some aid agencies are also raising a broader political concern. They say the Thai policy will, intentionally or not, help limit criticism of Burma's military government. The refugees ordered to leave Bangkok include a number of outspoken political dissidents. Thailand has already banned the refugees from holding demonstrations in Thai cities.