Thailand's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is inadequate, with those outside designated refugee camps risking deportation, say activists and rights groups.
“The absence of refugee law in Thailand unfairly exposes refugees and asylum seekers to abuses including exploitation, extortion, arrest, and detention,” said Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) refugee programme director and author of a new report released on 13 September.
While 85,977 verified refugees and 966 asylum seekers currently reside in the country, according to the latest estimates from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Thai legislation does not include any protection provisions for refugees.
“Refugees are seen as illegal migrants outside of the camps, and inside the camps they are vulnerable to social problems arising from lack of employment. Neither model is adequate,” said Oliver White, communications and advocacy officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Catholic NGO.
Burmese refugees are legally permitted to stay in the kingdom only if they stay in the nine camps along the 1,800km Thai-Burmese border.
But lack of access to livelihoods often forces breadwinners to leave settlements during the day to find work, putting them at risk of arrest and deportation, activists say.
The estimated 2,000 urban refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok can be detained by police and returned to their country of origin at any moment, even if they are UNHCR recognized refugees and scheduled for resettlement.
“All groups are vulnerable to deportation, but particularly those from neighbouring countries,” said Michael Timmins, a lawyer from Asylum Access Thailand.
Currently there are 68 refugees and asylum seekers at Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centre, including 22 verified refugees and 15 children under the age of 18, according to HRW and JRS.
“We continue to advocate with the government to end its policy of detaining refugees and asylum seekers, especially children,” Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Bangkok, told IRIN.
Additionally, it is believed many ethnic groups are denied refugee status for political reasons, including the Lao Hmong, the Rohingya from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, North Koreans, and the Shan people from southern Myanmar.
“Thailand's policies on refugees are not motivated by legal obligations, but by political motives,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division.
Taking responsibility for refugees has, until now, been considered the responsibility of the international community, according to Veerawit Tianchainan, the executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees, a national NGO supporting refugees.
“Advocacy needs to change the premise that refugee issues are an international issue,” said Tianchainan, who added that national security trumps human rights principles in the case of refugees.
Thailand has not created a framework to protect refugees because “policymakers [never] expected refugee situations to last this long,” Tianchainan explained.
“We are in no hurry” - Thai government
Meanwhile, despite reform efforts inside Myanmar, the Thai government continues to respect the stay of encamped Burmese refugees inside the country until they are ready for return.
“[We] are in no hurry to rush this matter,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an open letter to HRW.
Since 2010, the government has also allowed refugee birth registration for encamped Burmese babies - “an important step to prevent statelessness among a new generation of refugees,” said Tan.
Fast-track processing of encamped refugees initiated earlier this year has also allowed several thousand to re-unite with their resettled families in countries such as Canada, the USA, and Australia.
However, this is just “a small slice compared to the more than 50,000 unregistered who remain in the camps,” said Frelick.
It also does little to help refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok.
“Even if Thailand is not ready to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government should consider steps that will enable it to provide more systematic refugee protection,” said Tan.