Bangkok’s army of urban refugees live a precarious existence outside the law
Think of refugees and what springs to mind are people fleeing war-ravaged towns, or living on handouts in makeshift camps.
But a recent panel discussion in Bangkok to mark International Human Rights Day swung a spotlight onto a different group of migrants in Thailand who rarely make the news.
Under the banner “Stand Up for Urban Refugees’ Rights”, the seminar exposed the plight of “hidden” asylum seekers who lack human rights, humanitarian aid and legal protection.
“Most people are unaware that there are urban asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand. They live a precarious existence – unable to work, often unable to send their children to school, financially stressed and dependent on arbitrary handouts to survive,” explained Ambassador Jesus Miguel Sanz, head of the European Union delegation to Thailand, which organised the event.
“Many have physical and psychological health problems resulting from the trauma they experienced in their home countries,” he added.
For much of the Cold War era, Thailand hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries in camps along the border. The Kingdom became a transition point for asylum-seekers awaiting permission to resettle in a third country.
Today, more than 100,000 refugees from conflict in Myanmar, also known as Burma, reside on the northern border. Their living conditions are far from perfect, but at least they are being assisted by humanitarian aid organisations.
Urban refugees, on the other hand, are less visible, though their plight is no less painful. As Ambassador Sanz pointed out, the crisis is a global phenomenon that stretches far beyond the borders of one country. And because of this fact, “We need cooperation,” he said.
There are an estimated 5,700 asylum seekers and 2,500 recognised urban refugees currently living in and around Bangkok. The vast majority arrived in the Kingdom on tourist visas, overstayed and became illegal migrants. Most come from Pakistan, Vietnam, Syria and Somalia, though more than 50 nationalities are thought to be represented.
We may not acknowledge their presence or recognise their plight, but they are definitely here. And while they wait to be processed or accepted by another country, feelings of frustration and awful uncertainty over their fate are compounded by economic deprivation.
Moreover, the absence of any legal status means that these urban refugees live in constant fear of detention and deportation, as well as exploitation by various parties, including the police.
For the time being, the government’s attitude towards refugees seems to be on the right track. In September, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, speaking at the Leader’s Summit on Refugees hosted by US President Barack Obama, announced a Bt65-billion budget to provide healthcare, education and legal assistance to refugees in Thailand.
But their lack of legal status means the asylum-seekers can also end up being repatriated to their country of origin to face possible persecution, as happened last year to Uighur refugees from China’s Xinjiang province.
The Uighurs’ case reflects the sad reality that political pressure from powerful countries like China can influence Thai policy on asylum seekers.
The deportations were carried out despite strong protest from the international community, and represented a major reversal to a longstanding Thai practice of not forcing refugees to return to countries where they might face political persecution. They also reversed the direction of Thai political capital that had been rising in the wake of the Bt.65-billion budget for refugees.
“At the end of the day it’s about the decency of human beings, regardless of status, race, religion or political ideas. It is important that everyone is aware of these rights and their obligation to contribute,” Sanz said.