Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol. Due to its immigration laws the vast majority of people seeking asylum and recognised refugees are likely to be illegally resident in the country and are regarded as illegal migrants. There is no national framework for refugee status determination (RSD), as such UNHCR registers and undertakes RSD in urban areas.
There are no publicly available up-to-date numbers on asylum seekers, refugees, or those awaiting registration in Bangkok. UNHCR, in its 2013 country operations profile, estimated that in December 2013 there would be just under 2000 registered asylum seekers and refugees. However, it is widely acknowledged that the numbers of persons seeking refuge in Thailand has significantly increased over the past 12 months. An upsurge in the numbers of people fleeing the conflict in Syria, mostly Palestinians, and those escaping violence against religious minorities in Pakistan has meant that the numbers of those awaiting either registration with UNHCR or a RSD have likely sharply risen.
Countries of origin of asylum seekers, refugees, and those awaiting registration include: Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia, Iran, China, Cambodia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.
UNHCR does not conduct RSD for refugees from Burma. Burmese refugees are allowed in live in Thailand on condition of remaining in the refugee camps along the Thai / Myanmar border. It has been reported that those who come to Bangkok and approach UNHCR are instructed to go and present at a camp.
Once registered with UNHCR ‘Asylum Seeker Certificates’ confirm that the holder is a ‘person of concern’ to UNHCR. The certificates do not hold legal weight to protect against arrest and detention, and do not convey the right to work.
Most refugees arrive in Bangkok with a passport and tourist visa. This means on initial entry they are legally in the country. Once their tourist visas expire they are considered illegal migrants under Thai law, which doesn’t allow for urban refugees.
Once refugees have been through the RSD process, for those who are recognised they may go through the process of being resettled (the only durable solution available to most). Resettlement rates are known to be higher than for most other countries amongst those recognised under the 1951 convention (comparatively to other countries hosting urban refugees), but the process is slow (in 2011 the time period from UNHCR referral to departure was on average 918 days).
Specific protection concerns:
- Arrest, detention and refoulement: Because Thailand has no domestic legislation governing refugees and is not a signatory to the 1951 convention refugees are at constant risk of arrest as soon as they do not have a valid visa, regardless of registration with UNHCR or recognition of refugee status by UNHCR. People are regularly stopped on the street by the authorities, and raids are conducted on homes and other places where refugees may be. Bribes are often demanded for and paid to avoid detention. Where this is not possible people may be detained in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre. Detention conditions are said to be poor; overcrowded and unhygienic. Children are detained alongside adults. People can remain in indefinite detention for many years. There are a number of ways that somebody can be released from detention:
- To be recognised as a refugee and resettled to a safe country.
- To be granted bail (50,000 baht and a Thai national guarantor). Generally the authorities bail only recognised refugees who are likely to be resettled (there are some exceptions to this norm). Those bailed must report regularly to immigration authorities.
- For those from neighbouring countries Thailand has agreements whereby the individual can ‘agree’ to be taken to the border of Thailand and their country of origin where they are handed over to the authorities of their country of origin.
- ‘Voluntary’ self-deportation by payment for flights back to the country of origin, as well as any fines incurred.
- Employment: For the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees it is extremely unlikely they would be able to work legally, as a work visa would be necessary and hard to get once the initial visa used to gain entry to the country is expired. Some refugees are able to get jobs, more likely those from Asian countries than those originating from African countries. For those who do work, pay is often below minimum wage and is insufficient to support their family. Exploitation by employers is often raised as an issue, made possible by the illegal nature of the employment.
- Refugee Status Determination procedures: Access to RSD procedures takes time, and whilst waiting urban refugees in Thailand are afforded no basic protection. Those who apply to register at UNHCR must wait months to be registered (due to the increase in numbers of refugees arriving in Bangkok this waiting period is increasing). Refugees complain that once registered they must wait long periods before they are granted an RSD interview, and postponements of interviews is reported. Legal representation, by a number of different NGOs, is available for those seeking asylum. However, legal representatives are not permitted to attend RSD interviews. Decisions take time to be delivered and detailed reasons for rejection are generally not given. Inconsistent application of ‘extended mandate’ refugee status has been noted, which leaves those granted it in a state of limbo. Appeal processes can be slow.
- Basic needs (financial support; food; health care):
- Health care: Prior to registration at UNHCR refugees are not entitled to access free health care. As such, it is only available to them through public health care services if they are able to pay the costs (there are additional difficulties such as language barriers when accessing public health services). Those who are registered as asylum seekers with UNHCR may access free of charge health care through UNHCR’s implementing partner if they have a serious illness or are in need of immediate medical attention. Recognised refugees may access basic medical services.
- Financial support: Prior to registration at UNHCR refugees cannot access any financial support through UNHCR. Some churches and NGOs provide limited financial assistance and food, although access to this among the refugee population depends on the active pursuing of such services by the refugees themselves. Due to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok, access to financial assistance for asylum seekers and refugees is being reduced and is now largely only available to recognised refugees who are classified as being ‘extremely vulnerable’. With the difficulties in accessing employment this leaves many refugees in Bangkok with insufficient means of supporting themselves and their families.
- Food: Access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate food is a serious obstacle. A number of charities provide subsidies to supplement meals, but this is often not sufficient to meet nutritional needs, particularly of children and those with health needs.
- Access to education: Thai law allows for all children to enter Thai government schools. In practice access is limited by the approach of local schools to this law (discrimination in allowing access to children not of Thai nationality), and by the child’s ability to speak and learn in Thai. Some classes are offered by NGOs and churches, but these are not enough to meet educational needs. For registered asylum seekers and refugees, their children can access education through UNHCR’s implementing partner. However, travel (as noted below) is an obstacle to this.
- Harassment and discrimination: Many refugees, particularly Africans, face harassment and discrimination from the Thai community. In 2006 UNHCR reported violence and threats to refugees, in part attributed to media reports that had suggested refugees spread diseases.
Main living areas
Refugees are scattered across poor areas of the city and in the suburbs. Whilst refugees from particular countries often tend to live together, refugees are discouraged by service providers from living in big groups, because of the potential for mass arrest and detention. Accommodation can be difficult to find and overcrowding is common. Refugees are encouraged to find accommodation whilst they still have a valid visa, as passport and proof of legal residence is often required by landlords.
Whilst fast modes of transport (such as motorcycle taxis and the sky train system) are available, these are expensive. As a result, many refugees travel by bus. The traffic in Bangkok is heavy, and this means that journeys to service providers and to UNHCR can take many hours. Coupled with the fear of arrest when out in public, the consequences of refugees being spread out around Bangkok is that access to services is reduced.
Refugee Law in the country:
1951 Convention: Not a signatory
1967 Protocol: Not a signatory
No domestic legislation governing refugees (Burmese refugees are dealt with under a separate executive order, permitting them to stay in Thailand if they are registered in one of the camps along the Thai / Myanmar border).
Immigration Act B.E. 2522 (1979) has no provision that allows legal residence to a person who is classified as an asylum seeker or refugee. Instead, the person would be considered an illegal alien if his or her travel document becomes invalid, and could be subject to prolonged detention and/or deportation.
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (2013) Urban Refugees in Asia Pacific, Resiliency and Coping Strategies – National Consultations: Bangkok
Asylum Access, Boat People SOS and Conscience Foundation (2009) UNHCR Protection Challenges for Urban Refugees in Thailand: Report and Recommendations
Asylum Access Thailand (2011) Urban Refugees in Thailand
den Otter, V. (2007), Forced Migration Review, 28: 49 – 50, Urban asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand
Human Rights Watch (2012) Ad Hoc and Inadequate: Thailand’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers
JRS Asia-Pacific (2012) The Search: Protection Space in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines
Kagan, M. (2013) UNHCR’s Bangkok Office Defies the Right to Counsel
UNHCR (2013) UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Thailand