Life in limbo for Thailand’s urban refugees

opinion September 24, 2018 01:00

By Puttanee Kangkun
Special to The Nation

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Although Thailand has hosted tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees in “temporary shelters” along the Myanmar border for more than three decades now, Thai authorities are often surprised to learn that there are other refugees in need of protection in Thailand.



Specifically, there are thousands of refugees hailing from all corners of the planet, including Somalia, Syria, Pakistan, and Vietnam, living quiet lives in Thailand’s urban centres.

For a group of Christian Jarai (also known as Montagnard) refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, their quiet life in Thailand became a nightmare on August 28 when immigration authorities raided a neighbourhood in Nonthaburi on the outskirts of Bangkok. The authorities arrested about 180 refugees, one third of whom were children, for being in Thailand without permission.

This move goes against progress to develop policies on and a recognition of refugees in line with international standards. During the last several years, Thailand has gone from almost no policy at all to the setting up of a screening mechanism to identify and ostensibly provide protection to refugees. Government officials have travelled to various countries – including Pakistan, the United States, Canada and South Korea – to study and observe systems used to screen and support refugees.

Senior government officials have stated that the fundamental rights of refugees, including protection from refoulement – forced return – will be respected through the establishment of screening processes. There is even talk about the possibility of a “humanitarian visa” for nationals of specific countries.

The raid and subsequent arrest and detention of refugees in Nonthaburi demonstrates the urgency for these discussions to become part of Thai policy and practice.

Ignorance in officaldom

Most local government officials in Nonthaburi were unaware of who qualifies as a refugee or their need for international protection. Nonthaburi officials cannot differentiate between a Jarai person, who has fled persecution in their home country and is unable to return, from an undocumented economic migrant. Many of these officials had never heard of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the UN agency mandated to provide protection to refugees – or seen a UNHCR card that affords the holder the status of refugee. Almost none of the officials involved in the Nonthaburi raid had any idea how or why people from neighbouring countries could become refugees.

“These countries have no war,” law enforcement officials said in court when pressing charges of unauthorised entry and residence against the detained Jarai refugees.

“No matter who they are, they [have committed an offence] against the Immigration Act.”

The lack of knowledge among Thai authorities to handle refugees in accordance with international standards is especially worrying when it comes to their treatment of refugee children swept up during the raid. Two days after their arrest, the authorities separated from their parents 47 children, between the ages of 3 months to 17 years, and placed the children in four shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. This move stunned civil society groups working with refugee communities in Thailand, particularly given that representatives from the Royal Thai Police recently drafted a memorandum of understanding with state agencies to end child detention in Immigration detention centres. The police also declared that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was prepared to sign the MoU as part of his commitment at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September 2016.

Children separated from parents

The separation and detention of these children directly contravenes the Child Rights Convention, to which Thailand is a party, which requires authorities to act in the best interests of children. In the cases of the Jarai refugees, it is very much in the best interests of the children to stay with their parents.

Among the 47 children separated from their parents, at least four are babies of breastfeeding age. After sustained engagement by civil society groups, the authorities eventually relented and allowed the mothers to be reunited with their babies at the ministry shelters. The authorities also agreed to reunite children with their families in the immigration detention centres on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately, this will mean that the children will have to choose: either to be detained with their mothers in Immigration detention, or to continue staying at the government shelters alone and separated from their families. While it is possible for them to be bailed, the amount of Bt50,000 is beyond the reach of any of these Jarai refugees.

As such, it is clear that until proper refugee regulations are implemented, the fate of these and other refugees will remain in limbo in the foreseeable future.

Puttanee Kangkun is a Thailand human rights specialist with Fortify Rights.