Thailand: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand is failing to fulfil its obligation to protect refugees

For decades, Thailand has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and human rights violations in neighbouring countries and locations further afield. Notwithstanding Thailand’s significant contribution to addressing regional and global refugee crises, the Thai government has frequently violated the rights of refugees.

Thai law does not provide formal legal status to refugees and asylum-seekers. They are therefore trapped in a life of perpetual insecurity, knowing that they could be arrested, detained or deported at any time. Many struggle to find employment, access medical care or even feed themselves and their families. Those who are arrested often find themselves detained for months or years in over-crowded immigration detention centers, which refugee rights advocates call “worse than prison.”

On several occasions in the past three years, the Thai government has returned refugees and asylum-seekers to situations where they face torture, persecution and other serious human rights violations. These actions contravene Thailand’s obligations under international law and demonstrate a callous disregard for the rights of people who have already experienced tremendous danger and suffering.

Muhammet Furkan Sokmen, a Turkish national
I don’t want to go to Turkey. I don’t want to be imprisoned. I don’t want to be tortured. I have committed no crime.

What is refoulement?

 

 The principle of non-refoulement obliges states not to return individuals to situations in which they are at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. It is the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime. Refoulement can take the form of the extradition or deportation of individuals back to their home countries, “push-backs” of refugees or asylum seekers at a country’s borders, or the creation of conditions in a country that leave an individual with no choice but to return to a situation involving serious risk of human rights violations.

An example of refoulement occurred in July 2015, when Thai authorities transferred 109 members of the Uighur community, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that faces severe discrimination in China, into the custody of Chinese authorities in Bangkok. These individuals were subsequently flown to China on a chartered flight with Very little is known of their current status or condition.

Four months later, Thailand forcibly returned two activists to China. In the past three years, Thailand has also been responsible for similar violations of the principle of non-refoulement in relation to individuals from Turkey and Bahrain.

 

 

 

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

© Christophe Archambault /AFP/Getty Images
a Thai journalist who was an eyewitness to the “push-back” of a boat carrying Rohingya refugees
One woman said that she had already lost one child and just wanted to land. They had been at sea for months. They were starving. I could see their ribs.
Rohingya Muslim illegal immigrant inside the Immigration Detention Centre in Kanchanaburi province Rohingya Muslim illegal immigrant inside the Immigration Detention Centre in Kanchanaburi province
REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Boat crammed with some 350 people, including children, was drifting off the coast of Thailand and Malaysia Boat crammed with some 350 people, including children, was drifting off the coast of Thailand and Malaysia
Thapanee Ietsrichai

Rohingya refugees pushed out to sea

The Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar faces severe persecution and has often been the target of deadly attacks by state security forces and local civilian populations. In recent months and years, many Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and risked their lives making deadly sea journeys in an attempt to find safety and security in other Southeast Asian countries.

Successive Thai governments have responded to the maritime flow of refugees and migrants by blocking boats from landing in Thailand. The Thai navy has often towed unseaworthy boats out to sea, setting them adrift in with few supplies. During a May 2015 “boat crisis”, Thailand pushed several boats out to sea. The UN refugee agency estimated that 370 people died at sea at that time, but we fear the number could be much higher.

We asked, 'Why are we not able to go to Thailand, if the captain will go there?' We were worried and we prayed. We only knew that we would die. The choice was death or life
A young female refugee after the Thai prevented her boat from landing in Thailand

A young Rohingya woman told Amnesty International that she was aboard a boat that was prevented from landing in Thailand after being at sea for more than a month. The Thai Navy stopped the boat as it neared the Thai coast and informed the captain, a human trafficker, that the boat would not be allowed to land. Shortly afterwards, the captain and his crew intentionally damaged the boat, causing it to leak the water and departed by speed boat. The group managed to navigate the disabled boat to a nearby island in Malaysia, where they were arrested and sent to an immigration detention facility.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Jiang Yefei’s wife, after seeing him in Chinese custody on state-run television.
It was hard for him to talk. One of his eyes was damaged… He was wearing the same t-shirt and shorts that he was wearing when he was taken from Thailand. It was winter, but he was wearing his summer clothes
Chinese activists Dong Guangping Chinese activists Dong Guangping
Chinese activists Dong Guangping. © Private

Activists illegally forced into detention

Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping are political activists who fled China to seek asylum in Thailand. While in China, Jiang Yefei was detained and tortured by Chinese authorities after participating in the alternative “human rights torch” relay in advance of the Beijing Summer Olympics. After he was released and heard reports of plans to arrest him again, he fled to Thailand to seek refugee status. Dong Guangping was a former police officer in China who criticized the Chinese government. His activism led to his arrest and three year imprisonment in 2000. Fearful that he would be arrested again, he also arrived Thailand as an asylum seeker.

The Thai government arrested them on immigration charges in 2015. While in detention, both Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were recognised as refugees and told that they could relocate to Canada.

He looked very relaxed… They thought they would be with us soon. They already signed the agreement with the Canadian government. They thought they were safe.
Dong Guangping’s wife with her husband after they had been approved resettlement to Canada.

A few weeks later, it was confirmed that both men had been forcibly returned to the Chinese authorities.

The next time their wives would see them was a month after they were arrested in Thailand. and Dong Guangping were forced to confess to false charges on state-run television. As she watched her husband on the screen, still wearing the clothes he was wearing when taken from Thailand, Jiang Yefei’s wife noticed  his eyes appeared damaged from what looked like abuse from the Chinese authorities.

 

 

A lost opportunity

For several years, Thailand has vocalized their commitment to improving the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Thai officialshave promised to pass a law against torture criminalising refoulement to abide by the rules of non-refoulement and state that they will not return refugees and asylum seekers to situations where they are at risk of serious human rights violations.

Despite these commitments, we continue to hear stories of refugees being pushed back, detained and forcibly returned in Thailand.

Now is the time for the Thai government to turn their promises into action., Thailand has the opportunity to stand up and demonstrate their commitment to ensure that they welcome refugees while protecting their rights. This involves not only countering their policy of pushing back refugees at the border, but also assuring their safety while they are living in Thailand, by creating a formal legal status for refugees.

Jerry Redfern/LightRocket via Getty Images

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