BANGKOK – The stench inside Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre is indescribable. The guards give detainees bright orange t-shirts – with a phone number printed on the front – to wear when they enter the IDC reception area.
About a dozen visitors line up on the opposite side of a fence separating them from the detainees. A guard paces between a one-metre-gap in the fence to keep an eye on everyone.
Yasar Tamim, 43, walks up slowly with a look of dejection on his face and his stomach protruding from the shirt. He’s a Syrian father of two with a family of six – including his sister-in-law and her two children – living together in Thailand.
“I was called and told to report to immigration,” Tamim said loudly so he could be heard over the din. “I’ve been in here before but this time they are denying me bail.”
Tamim has been held in detention for seven months. His wife and two children were detained in 2018 with him, but last January the Thai government released them under its international commitment to end the detention of children.
The entire family holds UN Refugee Agency identification cards proving their refugee status by the UNHCR in Thailand. But Thai police and immigration authorities don’t recognize these documents as legitimate.
The UNHCR in Thailand declined to be interviewed for this story.
Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and views all refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to its national security.
The UNHCR in Thailand estimates there are around 4,779 urban refugees – like Tamim and his family – living in Bangkok. Asylum Access Thailand estimates the number is more than 8,000.
Many Thai refugee and migrants rights groups, as well as journalists covering the issue, believe the number is much higher – possibly in the tens of thousands.
“If there’s no lawful way for refugees to stay in Thailand than coming forward is an act of courage in itself,” said Emily Arnold-Fernandez, founder and executive director of Asylum Access.
“It’s always complex to count people who are living on the margins,” she added.
Refugees, migrants and stateless
It is estimated that Thailand has two million undocumented migrant workers.
According to UN statistics, there are 480,000 stateless people without any form of citizenship living in Thailand.
The Thai government wants to end statelessness by 2024, and has made commitments to assist those seeking refuge in Thailand.
But it still has no screening mechanism to identify and provide protection to refugees. This is left up to the UN.
There are currently 96,802 refugees registered with the UNHCR living in nine refugee camps located near the border with Myanmar.
Most of Thailand’s Syrian refugees and asylum seekers arrived at Bangkok’s main airport. They received tourist visas at immigration and entered the country legally. But the wait to register as refugees sometimes takes several years.
The Thai government still has no screening mechanism to identify and provide protection to refugees.
This means they must overstay their tourist visas, which is against the law. If they do so, they risk arrest, detention and possible deportation by Thai authorities.
Tamim arrived in Bangkok with his family six years ago, fleeing the Syrian civil war. He has been arrested and detained at the Suan Phlu IDC several times. But he’s always been able to receive bail in the past.
He uses the bail paper as proof of identification with Thai police. This allowed him to stay out of the IDC long enough to find work and support his family.
Now that he’s locked up and unable to earn an income, his wife and two children sell home cooked Syrian food every Friday at a local mosque. They are able to make enough money to keep the family safe inside their two-bedroom apartment.
But inside the IDC, Tamim said he’s been sharing a room with 100 other detainees. They sleep side by side and have one toilet to share.
“This is no place for children,” he added. “I’m glad my wife, daughter and son are no longer in here. But I miss them.”
Tamim believes there are over 1,000 people detained at the IDC. The former Thai immigration chief gave a press conference earlier this year pledging that 900 would be the maximum amount of detainees he would allow.
Thailand’s refugee acceptance policy shifts according to pressure from the international community. The most recent example is Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed.
She arrived at Bangkok airport and demanded access to the UNHCR. Thai authorities immediately processed her request and she was granted refugee status in Canada within a week.
This news gave many refugees in Thailand hope the immigration crackdowns would cease and the government would adopt a more humane approach.
But refugee and migrants rights groups believe the Thai language media is unable to cover its concerns adequately or hold government accountable.
“You don’t see many refugee stories coming from Thai journalists,” said Paritta Wangkiat, a columnist at the Bangkok Post newspaper.
“If you look at young [Thai] people today they are more aware of democracy and human rights. Maybe in 20 years with the next generation things might change,” she added.
Tamim is hopeful a new Thai government – following the March 24 election – will at least allow bail to be reinstated so he can leave the IDC and go back to work to support his family.
“I can hardly sleep at night in here because there’s so much noise,” he said as the crowd in the Suan Phlu IDC reception centre got louder. “I just want to go home.”