The US government has paved the way for tens of thousands of ethnic Karen refugees from military-run Myanmar to apply to resettle in the United States, a senior US official said here on Thursday.
Ellen Sauerbrey, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migrations, said an anti-terrorism law that had barred many ethnic Karen refugees had been waived on Tuesday.
"We look forward to welcoming thousands of refugees," she said, adding that a "tremendous number" were now eligible for the US resettlement program.
Under stringent anti-terrorism laws passed after the September 11 attacks, people who provide "material support" to terrorist organisations are not eligible to resettle in the United States.
Most of the Karen refugees in camps on the Thai-Myanmar border back the Karen National Union, an armed group fighting Myanmar's military junta.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last May waived the material support law for the Tham Hin refugee camp in western Thailand, which made some 9,300 Karen eligible to live in the United States.
However until Tuesday, up to 150,000 Karen refugees in eight other camps on the border were still officially considered terrorism supporters.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on Thursday said he foresaw 6,000 Karen refugees a year being resettled overseas as a result of the US waiver.
"This is one of the highest levels in the world," he told reporters. "If the global number of resettled people is about 70,000, to have 6,000 just of one group from one country ... it's not easy to go any further."
About 2,700 Karen refugees are set to resettle in the United States this year, with others going to Australia. Sauerbrey said there would be no cap on the number the US would accept.
Sauerbrey said she was unconcerned about opposition from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which has previously accused "foreign masters" of trying to interfere in Myanmar's internal affairs.
"Until Burma stops oppressing their people, we will continue to see this refugee flow," she said.
Sauerbrey was unable to say if ethnic Hmong who fled persecution in Laos would be issued with a material support waiver, but said the United States had spoken to Thailand about its stated aim to return Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos.
"No government should forcibly return people to a situation in which they would suffer persecution, perhaps torture," she said.
Both Guterres and Sauerbrey urged the Thai government to allow the refugees in all the camps along the border to work legally in Thailand.
Guterres said the Thai government had agreed in principle to issue ID cards to refugees in the camps to allow them to work in Thailand.
He also said they had discussed an agreement to allow the refugee population in Thailand access to the country's national HIV/AIDS program.
The United Nations refugee agency says almost 108,000 Karen are currently registered in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.
However NGOs working with the refugees say the total figure is closer to 150,000.
Human rights groups have accused Myanmar's army of killing civilians and torching villages in their efforts to quell the KNU, the oldest and largest rebel force, which is still battling the junta.