Thailand is a key transit point for foreign refugees, but their treatment here depends on who’s chasing them
In light of the Immigration Department’s sloppy and embarrassing handling of a Bahraini football player for whom asylum in Australia was waiting, the authorities obviously need a clearer operating procedure to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Hakeem al-Araibi fled Bahrain in 2014, was granted refugee status in Australia where he plays semi-professional soccer, and only came to Thailand for his honeymoon. He arrived in November, was detained in connection with a 10-year sentence given him in absentia in Bahrain, and remained in custody in Bangkok until last week. International condemnation of Thai authorities finally helped free him.
Meanwhile in the same week, Uzbekistan sent Qalymbek Shahman, an ethnic Kazakh with Chinese nationality, back to Thailand whence his flight departed because Beijing wants him repatriated. China has incarcerated an estimated one million ethnic Muslim Uighurs and Kazakhs in “re-education camps”, believing Maoist-style indoctrination will rid them of any hopes for cultural or geographic autonomy.
Predominantly Muslim Turkey has urged China to close what are concentration camps by another name and end its persecution of Muslims, which it called “a great cause of shame for humanity”. Unfortunately the appeal from Ankara found few echoes around the world, with most countries more interested in tapping the retail value of the vast Chinese population.
Thailand’s status as a primarily Buddhist society does not excuse its silence on Beijing’s ethno-religious suppression, and in fact should encourage it to speak out. Now a victim of that persecution has landed back in our laps. Swift and decisive action is needed, preferably before the Immigration Police have to again ask the Foreign Ministry to clean up the mess it’s made.
Blaming the al-Araibi debacle on Bahrain with its reputation for crushing dissent sounded pathetic given that he was kept in a Thai jail for 76 days. Nor does it seem to matter these days that Interpol issued a “red notice” for al-Araibi’s arrest. Interpol has devolved into a political tool for dictators. Moreover, our officials have ignored international standards for the treatment of refugees and others seeking political asylum.
Also in recent news was seven undocumented Uighurs escaping from an Immigration detention centre in Mukdahan. It was a match for the incident in Songkhla in November when 25 Uighurs broke through their cell wall to gain freedom. They were among the more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand since 2014.
They had good reason to escape. In July 2015 Thailand forcibly returned 100 Uighurs to China, again to the dismay of the international community. They were sure to face harsh punishment there. A Uighur extremist group retaliated the following month by blowing up the Erawan Shrine in the heart of Bangkok.
Thousands of Uighurs have fled their historical homeland in China’s Xinjiang province as state suppression mounted. Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations are their transit points to Turkey, where they have in common a mother tongue, Turkic, and which is regarded as a defender of the Muslim faith globally, Ankara’s appalling human-rights record notwithstanding.
Thailand – despite not being a signatory to the Geneva Convention on refugees – has a moral obligation to respect international norms and humanitarian principles. Clearer policy on the treatment of asylum seekers would do much to ensure that people in genuine or perceived danger can feel safe in official detention while their cases are assessed. Instead, Thai Immigration is being seen overseas as a cruel beast.