Thailand’s Urban Refugees, Migrant Workers and Stateless People

Yasar Tamim family

Yasar Tamim’s family at their apartment in Thailand.

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.

International pressure

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.”

Published @Medium

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A Syrian Refugee’s Journey – Southeast Asia Dispatches

KUALA LUMPUR – Syrian refugee Hasan Al Akraa has become something of a minor celebrity in his adopted home of Malaysia. The 19-year-old is a prominent face in the country’s refugee community.

Since fleeing the Syrian civil war with his family seven years ago, Hasan began raising funds online for refugees needing emergency medical assistance but many of his donors reacted negatively to an announcement he made last year. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, March 25, 2019.

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Thailand 2019 Election Report – CBC The World This Weekend

BANGKOK – Many Thai voters are hoping for change as they wait on the result of their election. It’s the first held in eight years and the first since Thailand’s 2014 coup.

Millions of young people voting for the first time – hoping for the return of civilian rule – but early results showed the military-backed party is in the lead. This story aired on CBC The World This Weekend Sunday, March 24, 2019.

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Thais Head to Polls in 2019 Election – CBC World Report

BANGKOK – Thailand goes to the polls Sunday. It’ss the country’s first election in eight years and follows the military seizing power in 2014.

This story aired on CBC World Report Saturday, March 23, 2019.

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Thailand Election Drama Unfolds – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Almost five years since the military seized power in a coup, Thailand is finally gearing up for its general election March 24 – the first in eight years.

Many Thais fear the election will not be free and fair as the military junta has founded its own political party to keep former General Prayut Chan-ocha on as prime minister of Thailand.

This has pitted pro-democracy parties against pro-military candidates in an election seen as a foregone conclusion to many observers. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, March 11, 2019.

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Political drama in Thailand as long-delayed election nears

Constitutional Court to meet next week as Thai Raksa Chart faces ban over Princess Ubolratana nomination.

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha:Reuters]

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Bangkok, Thailand – With Thailand’s long-delayed elections just over a month away, a court ruling is expected to deal a major blow to parties loyal to ousted ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and tip the scales in favour of the country’s military government – even as many voters appear weary of the generals after five years of army rule.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday is expected to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart following the party’s shock but failed nomination of Princess Ubolratana – the king’s older sister – as its candidate for prime minister in the March 24 polls.

Pheu Thai, the main pro-Thaksin party, may also later find itself be guilty by association, according to political analyst Supalak Ganjanakhundee, managing editor at The Nation.

“It may not be too difficult to link the two parties together. Some members of Thai Raska Chart came from the Pheu Thai party,” he said. “I anticipate the military will find some measure to block Pheu Thai [before the election] because it’s seen as a threat.”

The Pheu Thai party declined to comment.

Two weeks ago, Thai Raksa Chart stunned Thailand when it put forward Princess Ubolratana, who became a commoner after marrying a US citizen in 1972, as its candidate for prime minister.

Although Ubolratana returned to Thailand after getting a divorce, and is now known as a TV star and actress, the monarchy is said to be above politics and is protected by strictly enforced laws on lese-majeste.

Thailand’s Election Commission swiftly disqualified her candidacy, saying the nomination was unconstitutional and hostile towards the monarchy. The move came after King Vajiralongkorn said it was “improper and highly inappropriate” for a royal family member to delve into fractious Thai politics.

Meanwhile this week, Thai police said they were also seeking the prosecution of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward – a party pitched at younger voters making its electoral debut next month – over a speech shared online in June last year criticising the military.

‘Total control’

Parties connected to Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon, have dominated Thai politics for nearly two decades.

But two of the 19 coups that have taken place since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, have replaced pro-Thaksin governments.

Pheu Thai won the last elections in 2011 but was usurped by a coup three years later when the current military government – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin.

Thai Rak Thai Party, Pheu Thai’s predecessor, was dissolved in 2007 following the ousting of Thaksin himself in a coup a year earlier. The party’s next incarnation, Palang Prachachon, was dissolved by the court in 2008.

“We don’t know whether we’ll be able to make it to the polls or not,” said Umesh Pandey, member of the Thai Raksa Chart party.

“We are fighting against a regime that seized power five years ago. They have total control of how things are run.”

After taking control of the country and tightening the military’s hold over politics, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now trying to also become an elected prime minister through the Phalang Pracharat Party.

The 2017 military-drafted constitution almost assures the generals continued control of the National Assembly.

The 500 members of the lower house will be chosen by both direct vote – 350 seats – and party list – 150 seats – from across the country’s 77 provinces.

The military will appoint a panel to select all 250 members of the upper house so only 126 elected members would need to support Prayuth as prime minister and extend the military’s hold on power.

Red, yellow and orange

Overall, there are 77 political parties that have registered for the polls.

The two oldest are the Democrat and Mahachon parties, but most are newcomers – like Future Forward – hoping to appeal to voters no longer interested in the divisive colour-coded politics of the past.

Future Forward’s orange triangular logo is said to be the result of mixing yellow-shirt royalists and red-shirt Thaksin supporters. Its leader, Thanathorn, a successful business tycoon, has been likened to Thaksin.

“Our main policy is to amend the constitution,” said Sirikanya Tansakun, policy director at Future Forward. “We want military reform to stop this endless cycle of military coups and disruptions in governance.”

Like Future Forward, Pheu Thai’s “Next Gen” and the Democrats “New Dem” social media campaigns are targeting young Thai voters with videos and messages.

They are all vying for the backing of nearly seven million first-time voters to put an end to one of Thailand’s longest periods of army rule, pledging to reverse the military government’s policies.

Chulalongkorn University student Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is one of them.

The 22-year-old made headlines in 2016 after a public spat with Prayuth over his refusal to kowtow along with other university students before a statue of King Rama V.

“I will go campaigning to get more people to vote,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I support the democratic camp. I think young people are definitely going to vote and kick out the NCPO.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Airport Asylum Seekers Find Freedom – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – In the past year Southeast Asia provided temporary shelter to two asylum seekers from the Middle East fleeing persecution. Hassan Alkontar and Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun plead for asylum from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok airports.

They were resettled to Canada. But this has led to a backlash online in Malaysia, Thailand, and Canada — where some feel the two jumped the queue ahead of thousands waiting to be resettled.

But as Adam Bemma tells us, this isn’t the case at all. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, January 28, 2019.

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