Giles Ji Ungpakorn
While all those who believe in basic human rights are appalled by the racist anti-refugee policies of Donald Trump in the USA and similar policies in the European Union, where over 9 thousand people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2016, it is worth also looking at Thailand’s appalling record on this subject.
Amnesty International issued a report in September 2018 which outlined abuses committed by the Thailand’s military government [see https://bit.ly/2BBLc4O ]. These included the arrest in August 2018 of nearly 200 asylum seekers and refugees, which included persecuted minorities from Cambodia and Vietnam. There were 63 children and two pregnant women included in this number and many had UNHCR recognised refugee status. Children were separated from their parents. Some were transferred to the notoriously over-crowded Suan Plu Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, where there is a lack of medical assistance and poor sanitary conditions. Many others were taken to court and ended up in jail.
Thailand’s governments have refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. This means that asylum seekers and refugees are treated as illegal migrants and face deportation back to countries where there is a grave danger of them being subjected to violence and persecution. Dissidents from Turkey, Cambodia and China have been sent back to face imprisonment and worse.
In February 2018, Sam Sokha, a Cambodian political dissident was forcibly sent back to Cambodia and then imprisoned despite being recognised as a refugee by UNHCR. This week the Thai junta arrested construction union activist Rath Rott Mony while he was trying to claim asylum at a Dutch visa office. His so-called “crime” was to be involved in making a documentary exposing sex trafficking in Cambodia.
Chinese activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were deported to China in November 2015 as they awaited resettlement as refugees. In China they were sentenced to six and a half years and three and a half years in jail, respectively.
In 2015 more than 100 Muslim Uighurs, who are persecuted in China, were sent back, sparking an outcry from human rights groups. Understandably, Uighurs living in Turkey responded angrily by smashing windows at the Thai consulate in Istanbul.
One of the latest outrages concerns Hakeem al-Araibi, a political refugee from Bahrain who has refugee status in Australia. He was arrested by Thai police as he traveled to spend a holiday in Thailand. The junta are threatening to send him back to Bahrain, where he faces torture. The Australian government are complicit in his arrest in Thailand. The New York Times wrote that his case is a window into how vulnerable foreigners are treated in Thailand, a country with a history of deporting asylum seekers. [See https://nyti.ms/2RN0JnK ].
Nearly 130,000 refugees have crossed the border from Burma, seeking to flee violence and persecution. Those refugees who are allowed to stay in Thailand do not have access to healthcare, employment, education or any government support. They are confined to refugee camps without the right to leave the camps. Those desperate enough to seek employment are easy prey to abuse by employers because they are deemed to be “illegal”. The military and the Internal Security Operations Command have a record of pushing back desperate Rohingya refugees who arrive by boat.
Migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are vulnerable to physical abuses, indefinite detention, and extortion by Thai authorities. Recently 14 Burmese migrant workers were brought to court on criminal defamation charges after they filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand alleging that their employer had violated their rights. [Further reading https://bit.ly/2vNcwry ].
Unfortunately, due to rampant racism and ultra-nationalism in Thai society, such abuses are not confined to Thai military governments, but have taken place under elected civilian governments. [See http://bit.ly/1JaeTJY , http://bit.ly/1ZEwTnj ].
With various political parties jockeying for votes in the so-called general election, expected early in 2018, it is shameful that none of the progressive pro-democracy parties have any serious alternative policies towards asylum seekers and refugees. The Future Forward Party has raised the issue of helping Rohingya refugees by not pushing them back and holding talks with the Burmese government, but there is no policy to ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and no promise to change the way that refugees inside the country are treated by the government. The party’s policy towards migrant labour is to promise them the minimal rights under the law which Thai workers have, which is a step forward, but does not deal with thousands of migrant workers who are deemed to be illegal.