By Jintana Panyaarvudh
Four years ago, “AS” [an alias] feared for her life, so she fled her home in Lahore without knowing where she would end up. She finally reached Thailand, where she was granted refugee status and is awaiting resettlement in a third country.
“Me and my family came to Thailand since at least we can survive here,” said the 28-year-old member of the Ahmadi Muslim community, which suffers violence and persecution in Pakistan. “If any member of our group gets the opportunity to escape, they take it, because life there is not safe.”
Unlike most asylum seekers, AS entered Thailand legally with a visa and work permit. After two years, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recognised her as a refugee.
With bachelor’s degrees in history and education and a master’s in history, she was snapped up by a Thai school to teach English. The Education Ministry handed her a five-year teaching licence.
“I was lucky enough to stay legally in Thailand. Most refugees don’t have a visa, or if they do it has expired and the government prohibits them from living here.”
A visitor checks out the exhibition “The Past, The Present and The Future: Stories of Hope for Refugees”, held last weekend in Bangkok by Amnesty International.
As earns Bt10,000 to Bt15,000 a month from teaching and work at human rights organisations, enough for her and her mother to get by in a rented house.
Thailand is now her “second home”, though a temporary one.
“Thailand is a good country and provides me safety. It gives me freedom of life. I really love living here but I can’t stay here permanently because Thailand won’t give me citizenship,” she says.
She has rarely faced ill-treatment or discrimination since she arrived, though she did have to turn down her first job offer after the school said her hijab wasn’t part of a teacher’s uniform.
“My religion does not allow me [remove the headscarf]. I was surprised because you have no law to ban it,” she notes.
Hmong teenager Rose [her alias] fled Vietnam when she was just nine after her father was arrested by police for practising his Christian faith.
Now 16, she has been living here for seven years with a dream of starting a new life in Canada. She is still waiting to hear whether she qualifies for UN refugee status.
Meanwhile she has completed grade 6 with help from the Bangkok Refugee Centre and is now studying English.
Her initial fears of being caught and deported as an undocumented migrant are fading now that she’s picked up the language. Her Thai looks probably help too.
“A policeman once asked me what I was doing here. I told him the truth and he let me go,” Rose grins, speaking in fluent Thai.
Life is not too hard, since she lives with her working parents whose wages support her and her sibling. But she hopes to escape an “invisible” life on the margins in Thailand and eventually be resettled in Canada. If that plan fails, her dream is to open a Bangkok shop selling cloth.
Life is relatively comfortable for AS and Rose but few refugees or asylum seekers in Thailand can say the same.
Urban asylum seekers
Thailand currently hosts about 97,000 Myanmar refugees living in nine camps in four provinces on the border, along with over 6,000 urban refugees and asylum-seekers from some 40 countries, according to UNHCR.
The urban refugees come from Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries.
Bangkok alone has 1,240 asylum seekers and 4,800 refugees, according to Asylum Access Thailand (AAT), which provides legal counsel for refugees undergoing UNHCR status determination proceedings in the capital.
With resources limited for the urban asylum-seeker population, UNHCR provides cash assistance and in some cases medical reimbursement to vulnerable individuals according to needs, explains UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok Hannah MacDonald.
Less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled each year, she adds.
MacDonald says UNHCR is seeing a larger number of people displaced worldwide than ever before, including millions who fled last year from war, violence and persecution in countries like the Central African Republic, Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and Myanmar, where 700,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh from violence.
“There are many more refugees who need a resettlement place than the places available.”
It is important to note that not all refugees want to be resettled.
The majority in fact prefer to return home, but that is often not possible, MacDonald says.
She adds that resettlement countries, not the UNHCR, make the decision on admitting refugees.
No status in Thailand
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic legislation governing refugees, although the Kingdom has hosted individuals fleeing persecution and armed conflict in neighbouring countries for nearly 30 years.
As a result, refugees in Thailand are considered illegal migrants and face constant threat of arrest and detention even after the UN has recognised their status.
However, a policy of arrest and detention means the number of asylum seekers in Thailand is now falling, AAT says.
To mark World Refugee Day today, advocacy groups are urging the Thai government to scrap the policy of arresting and detaining refugees for overstaying and stop treating them as illegal migrants, which they say only makes the situation worse.
More than 200 refugees and asylum seekers are being detained at Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre in Suan Plu, of whom 21 are children, says Nuchnalin Leerasantana, community outreach officer for AAT.
“We call on the Thai government to stop arrest and detention,” said the AAT official.
This is the gravest issue faced by refugees in Thailand, since if they get caught they will be detained at the centre or deported to their home countries, she said.
She describes the squalid conditions of overcrowding at the Suan Plu centre, where there’s just one toilet per 70 people.
The government and security agencies should open the door to accept refugees, she said. If they are brought into an open system and didn’t have to live in hiding it would be easier to track them when something happens, she said, adding that they would help contribute to the country’s economy as well, in terms of spending and labour.
Piyanut Kotsan, director of Amnesty International (AI) Thailand, is urging the government to fulfil its commitments by ensuring that refugees and asylum-seekers are able to enjoy basic human rights, and are not sent back to countries where they face risk of persecution, torture or violence.
At the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha committed to establishing an effective refugee-screening mechanism, and to increasing access to education and healthcare for refugees in Thailand.
Piyanut says that since Thai law also prohibits refugees from working legally, they often have no option but to engage in work that is dangerous and degrading.
“Many of refugees told AI that the inability to work and provide for their families is one of the greatest challenges they face in Thailand,” Piyanut says.
Although the law provides basic education for all children, most refugee kids are unable to go to Thai schools due to language barriers and discriminatory treatment, she adds.
AS and Rose suggest that more activities be conducted to help Thais and refugees understand each other’s cultures.
“I do not demand anything from Thai people; I just want them to understand us … and accept us as human beings and friends rather than as criminals,” says AS. “We are here just to be alive.”