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The Situation of Urban Refugees in Bangkok

We are thankful to have many great interns that come through our doors at Human Rights Initiative. Many of them are inspired by their work here and go on to amazing careers in human rights. Andrew Damron was a gifted intern with us. He is now an attorney working with asylum seekers in Thailand. He sent us this very thoughtful view of the difficulties of asylum seekers as they try to obtain refugee status.

– Bill Holston, Executive Director

 

The Situation of Urban Refugees in Bangkok 

By Andrew Damron, Asylum Lawyer at Asylum Access Thailand

First, I want to thank the HRI team for inviting me back to the blog. It’s wonderful to be back. For those who do not know, I am a proud HRI intern alumnus, where I worked under the Asylum Program and the Women and Children Program. Since interning with HRI, I graduated from Hofstra Law School and I am currently an asylum lawyer in Bangkok, Thailand with another great organization called Asylum Access Thailand. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about my work, and to share some perspective on the types of problems we are facing on the ground in the urban refugee context here in Thailand.

The current situation for urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand is dismal. The difficult Andrew 2situation is compounded for urban refugees in Bangkok partly because the Kingdom of Thailand does not have any mechanisms in place to assist survivors of human rights abuses who have fled their home countries. To date, Thailand is not a member to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. That means that Thailand does not provide any immigration benefits for asylum seekers within its borders.

At Asylum Access, I provide direct legal services to refugees in the urban context (i.e
. refugees who come to Bangkok from outside of Thailand; we do not provide support to refugees in any of the Burmese/Thai border refugee camps). Most of our clients are Pakistanis and Palestinians (from Syria), however a large number of our other clients come from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and surprisingly many come from various African countries. Since the Thai government does not support refugees in Thailand in any way, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an agreement with Thailand to process all refugee claims within the Thai borders. I thus practice before the local offices of UNHCR in Bangkok. The ultimate goal is to have our clients recognized as refugees before UNHCR and then to have them resettled to some safe third country.

The situation is severe for urban refugees in Bangkok because UNHCR in Bangkok is overwhelmed beyond its capacity. For various reasons, including lack of space and staff, UNHCR is unable to process each applicant with haste. To highlight this, most asylum-seekers who apply for refugee status today will not receive their asylum interview until 2018. If granted refugee status, it will take at least another year to be resettled. That’s to say, people applying for refugee status today can expect to be in Bangkok for about five years before being resettled.

As mentioned above, Thailand does not have any internal mechanisms to assist the process for asylum-seekers in Thailand. When an individual is seeking asylum through UNHCR, their visa will likely expire before the applicant has their Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interview. As a result, many asylum seekers throughout Bangkok do not have proper immigration documentation and thus are vulnerable to arrest and placement in one of the Immigration Detention Centers throughout Thailand. The harshness of IDC on urban refugees is complicated in that families are broken up and rarely will have the opportunity to spend time with each other (as men are
divided from women in detention). Children are regularly placed in IDC. There are some new campaigns to educate the Thai population about placing children in immigration detention. However, nothing has been done on the part of the Thai government to remove the children from the detention centers.

Further, urban refugees do not have access to much financial or medical support. Without the right to work in Thailand, urban refugees rely on financial handouts from UNHCR, from religious organizations, and from other community-based organizations, however it’s never enough. Oftentimes urban refugees are forced to live in a small studio apartment with a dozen people. Some medical support is provided by the Bangkok Refugee Center and with some other help from UNHCR, however usually only life-threatening physical conditions receive priority.

In two short weeks, I will return to the United States with a new perspective on the role of an asylum attorney. I will continue working in asylum and refugee law, and I will always have Human Rights Initiative to thank for solidifying my passion to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.