By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand must ratify international treaties and formalize policies on migrants to protect tens of thousands of refugees mostly from Myanmar from extortion, deportation and arrest, a human rights group said on Thursday.
Despite ceasefires between Myanmar's reformist government and ethnic minority rebels, the prospect of early repatriation was unlikely and daunting for the estimated 150,000 people living in camps on the Thai side of the border, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
So laws were needed urgently to recognize refugees and grant asylum.
"Thailand's refugee policies remain fragmented, unpredictable, inadequate and ad hoc, leaving refugees unnecessarily vulnerable to arbitrary and abusive treatment," the group said in a report.
Refugees are not legally recognized in Thailand, which has not signed a 1951 international refugee convention. The government has no legal framework that distinguishes between a refugee from an asylum seeker, or any other migrant.
Nearly one third of those in camps along the 2,107 km (1,310 mile) Thai-Myanmar border are unregistered and barred from leaving their camps, or seeking employment. Those who find jobs are deemed illegal and often have to bribe officials and businessmen, leaving them open to mistreatment, HRW said.
In addition to the mostly ethnic minority people who have fled decades of fighting to the border camps, between one and three million migrants from Myanmar work in Thailand and most are unregistered, labor activists say.
Bill Frelick, HRW's refugee policy director, said the people in camps who were too scared or unable to return home should have the chance to be formally registered or granted asylum.
"They have an unfair choice of stagnating for years in remote refugee camps or living and working outside the camps without protection from arrest and deportation," he said.
Preliminary talks had taken place between the two countries on setting factories on the Myanmar side of the border staffed by returning migrants, but that was a long way off, as were lasting political deals with the rebels, meaning conflict could re-ignite, HRW said.
Many of those who grew up in camps were unprepared for an immediate return to their homeland, which is also known as Burma, the group said.
"The younger generation ... have no skills and no idea on how to live and survive in rural eastern Burma. So, we're not expecting to see a return en masse any time soon," Phil Robertson, HRW deputy director for Asia, told Reuters.
Thailand's Foreign Ministry said it saw "light at the end of the tunnel" as a result of the peace process in Myanmar, but insisted it was in no rush to empty the camps.
It was committed to helping refugees "until they can return home in safety and dignity, or other durable solutions can be found for them," Vijavat Isarabhakdi of the department of international organizations, said in an open letter in response to the report.
(Editing by Martin Petty)