THE ERADICATION of forced refugee detention, the granting of citizenship to stateless people, and the respectful deportation of asylum seekers are among goals that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects to develop further with Thailand.
These issues were raised when High Commissioner Filippo Grandi visited Thailand last Friday. The trip was postponed from March, when Grandi had also planned to visit a camp in Tak.
Due to his tight schedule this time, Grandi could only pay a brief visit to urban refugees in Bangkok before meeting Thai authorities, including Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, before heading to Bangladesh the next day.
The discussions included the issues of providing education and public healthcare, and the voluntary repatriation of 71 Myanmar refugees last October.
Meanwhile, a group of 13 NGOs and human rights organisations issued a four-page statement urging Thai authorities to seriously commit to a series of pledges in the arena.
Last September in New York, Prayut told the Global Leaders’ Summit that Thailand would end the detention of refugee children, establish an effective refugee-screening mechanism, ensure that refugee returns to Myanmar were voluntary, and increase refugees’ access to education, healthcare and birth registration. The NGOs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said any arbitrary and indefinite detention should be eliminated.
While Thailand’s immigration detention facilities were designed for stays of up to 15 days, some refugees have been detained for several years, the group said. They noted that, during the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights review in March, the Thai government confirmed that 121 Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhin State and Bangladesh continued to be confined to government-run shelters, where, according to the NGOs, “their movement is limited and liberty denied”.
The NGOs were also concerned about adequacy of conditions at Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs). “They can be severely overcrowded, with appalling sanitation and limited access to basic needs, medical care and psychological support,” the statement said.
Ijaz Masih, a 39-year-old Pakistani, died from a heart attack at an IDC in Bangkok in May. Human Rights Watch said that he had been detained for more than a year on an illegal entry charge and that the UNHCR had rejected his refugee claim the day before his death. Last Friday, Grandi said that he raised the detention matter with Prayut, who “has tried to eliminate detention of children refugees”.
“It was a good start,” Grandi said in a press briefing. “The UNHCR also advised the [Thai] Government to eradicate all detentions and would work with the Government. The work is ongoing.”
They also discussed a plan for Thailand to grant citizenship to half a million stateless people in the Kingdom, especially those in the North, the UNHCR chief said.
“It’s the UNHCR’s mandate to eliminate statelessness,” he said. “The government has started giving nationality after careful verification. This is an exercise that may take several years.”
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, hence the country is not obliged to recognise refugees or have procedures to assess asylum claims.
The NGOs argued that the lack of such instruments could heighten the risk of human rights violations such as refoulement, or the returning of individuals to a country where they may face rights violations.
In January, Thailand adopted a Cabinet resolution to create a committee to develop policies concerning the screening and management of undocumented migrants and refugees.
While this has laid the ground for further development on refugee management procedures, the NGOs also said that any screening mechanism that employs “discriminatory or overly restrictive criteria” would raise concerns regarding asylum protection.
The NGOs said Thailand had forcibly returned asylum seekers based on the requests of foreign governments despite risks to the individuals’ human rights. They cited the transfer of a Turkish national with alleged connections to the Gulen movement and the return of hundreds of alleged Uighurs to China.
“The UNHCR is respectful of any asylum seeker,” Grandi said. If any returns were related to security matters, governments should discuss the matter with the UNHCR, he said.