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Experts call for better treatment of Thailand’s urban refugees

Dec 10. 2016
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By STELLA DAVIES
THE SUNDAY NATION

Urban refugees are living difficult lives in Thailand and there needs to be proper legal protection and sufficient humanitarian aid for them to survive, a seminar has been told.

Panel speakers at the seminar on “Stand Up for Urban Refugees’ Rights” called for better treatment toward urban asylum seekers and refugees. 

The event was hosted by the European Union Delegation to Thailand at Central World on Friday to mark International Human Rights Day yesterday. It was aimed at raising public awareness on the current situation of urban asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand.

“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,” said Jesus Miguel Sanz, head of the Delegation of the European Union to Thailand, in his opening speech at the seminar. 

“Many have physical and psychological health problems resulting from the trauma they experienced in their home countries,” he added. 

Sanz stressed that Thailand’s government currently does not yet formally protect refugees through domestic legislation or asylum procedures although the country has been a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since December 10, 1948. 

Refugees have been fleeing from conflicts and fear of persecution to Thailand for decades. As of 2016, more than 100,000 refugees are known to be living on the Thai-Myanmar border housed in refugee camps. Urban refugees however, are much less visible.

“We have to realise the world is changing and that many refugees live among us in urban areas. This doesn’t relate to one country – it’s a global phenomenon. No country by itself can solve this problem. We need cooperation,” he said.

It was disclosed at the seminar that over the past four years the number of displaced people in Bangkok has quadrupled. Currently in Bangkok and the surrounding areas, there are approximately 5,700 asylum seekers and 2,500 recognised urban refugees.

Most arrive on tourist visas

Almost 90 per cent of them arrived in the Kingdom with a tourist visa, which they eventually overstay and become illegal migrants. Most came from Pakistan, Vietnam, Syria and Somalia. But it is estimated refugees come from more than 50 countries. 

Sanz noted that there were many non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian assistance such as education, legal assistance, and access to healthcare. These include the Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons. But most of them lack the resources to provide enough to cover the basic needs for refugees, he added.

Peter Trotter, a senior protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that due to their lack of legal status in the Kingdom, refugees live in constant uncertainty with fear of detention.

The need for a basic legal framework and a formal screening mechanism to protect refugees through domestic law was also becoming more necessary give the increasing number of people and families being displaced. “Often they have fled their own country out of fear of persecution on the basis of national origin, political opinion, or membership of a social group. Many refugees are people with the skills and education who can contribute to the country they are in,” Trotter said.

“On the bright side, the practice of non-refoulement, of not returning individuals to where they may experience torture or risk inhumane treatment, has been respected by Thailand even though they have not erected laws. This is why we don’t often see Thailand deporting people.”

In September, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attended the Leader’s Summit on Refugees hosted by United States President Barack Obama. There the Thai leader delivered a statement to address the refugee crisis. Prayut announced that the Thai government had allocated a Bt65-billion budget to provide health care, education and legal assistance to refugees.

Referring to statements by Prayut, Sanz was optimistic Thailand would continue to move forward in their commitment and efforts to resolve the problems faced by 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.

 

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