U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants World Refugee Survey 2007 - Thailand



Refoulement/Physical Protection

The Royal Thai Government (RTG) deported thousands of nationals of neighboring states for illegal entry, informally dropping them off at unofficial crossing points. This included as many as 10,000 Myanmarese per month and about 100 of them per year were camp-based refugees. Often officers of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a splinter group allied with the Myanmarese regime, or rebel groups received them and extorted bribes for their release. The RTG also deported thousands per year in more formal proceedings where, pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Myanmarese Government, it gave the Myanmarese authorities lists of the deportees' names in advance. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reviewed the lists and, in many instances, was able to prevent the refoulement of those among them it could identify as having a risk of persecution. UNHCR was not, however, able to intervene in cases of camp-based refugees caught outside the camps. Deportations from Bangkok through the border town of Mae Sot typically occurred at night, further obstructing the ability of UNHCR to monitor them.

In November, Thai officials turned 53 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers over to Laotian authorities. No human rights organizations had access to them in Laos and their whereabouts remained unknown at year's end but Laotian authorities said they would put them in "re-education" camps known for torture and ill-treatment. Also in November, police arrested 150 Hmong, including 77 children and 8 infants, after they escaped from Ban Huay Nam Kho center in Phetchabun province. Authorities transferred them to the Lao border by mid-December and notified Laotian authorities of their identities. UNHCR confirmed at least 100 as refugees who had fled persecution in Laos because of connections with anti-Communist resistance during the Vietnam War. Authorities planned to deport the group, including one infant, in January 2007; however, when the men barricaded themselves in Nong Khai detention center and threatened a mass suicide, Thailand cancelled the deportation.

In March 2007, the RTG deported two groups of 67 and 56 Myanmarese Moslems known as Rohingya from Mae Sot to DKBA-held territory.

There was a steady increase in reported protection incidents in and around the nine camps on the Thai-Myanmarese border over the past three years, including rape, child soldiering and recruitment, domestic violence, and murders. Refugees, however, were reluctant to report many incidents, wanting to handle their own affairs and fearing that reporting them would lead to tighter restrictions. Thai camp authorities also failed to report many incidents to UNHCR or Thai police. Most violence occurred in conflicts among refugees and over half of the reported murders occurred inside the camps. Thirty percent of physical assaults on camp-based refugees involved Thai security guards.

In April, Malaysia deported 30 Myanmarese Chin refugees to the Thai border, reportedly turning them over to traffickers. Over the past two years, at least three gangs, know as nak-lean, working in collaboration with Malaysian and Thai authorities brokered migrants' release and deportation from Malaysian detention centers and smuggled them back into Malaysia for about $381. If the migrants could not pay, the gangs reportedly beat them, threatened them, or sold them to Thai fishing boat owners or brothels.

Thailand was not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and had no refugee law. Neither the 1997 Constitution – repealed by the September 2006 coup – nor the interim Constitution the coup leaders promulgated in October contained provisions for asylum. The 1997 Constitution's chapter on fundamental rights was entitled "Rights and Liberties of the Thai People," but most of the provisions of that chapter applied to persons generally with exceptions referring explicitly to nationals.

Refugees and asylum seekers had no legal status distinct from other foreigners and, under the 1979 Immigration Law, the presence of most of them was illegal. The Minister of the Interior, however, under special circumstances and with Cabinet consent, could exempt aliens from the Act. On this basis, and the RTG's consideration that the refugees were "persons fleeing fighting," they could remain in Thailand as long as they stayed in the camps. The RTG and UNHCR jointly conducted refugee registration, but there was a major backlog of cases due to the four-year hiatus (from 2001 to 2005) of the Provincial Admissions Boards (PABs), which determined refugees' camp eligibility. In some camps, border security pre-screened Myanmarese asylum seekers upon arrival and transferred them to a Reception Center, and later to a Holding Center to await interviews. The PAB determined admissibility to the camps, and four-person teams interviewed refugees and forwarded their assessment to UNHCR. Refugees received temporary "displaced person" status if they were fleeing fighting or persecution. Rejected applicants could file appeals with UNHCR within seven days or await return to Myanmar.

Thailand had no official registration process for non-Myanmarese refugees. UNHCR conducted refugee status determination in Bangkok for non-Myanmar nationals and issued identity documents, but authorities did not always respect such documents.

In 2006, Thailand hosted about 200,000 ethnic Shan from Myanmar who fled forced relocation and ethnic persecution but whom the Government did not recognize. About 150,000 refugees from Myanmar lived in camps, mostly ethnic Karen and Karenni, and about 50,000 other Myanmarese lived outside the camps, including other ethnic minorities and some political dissidents. Some 7,000 Lao Hmong lived in makeshift camps in Phetchabun province since 2005. UNHCR granted refugee status under its mandate to about 500 non-Myanmarese applicants in 2006, including more than 200 Laotians, and more than 1,100 had cases pending at the end of the year. About 400 North Koreans also entered the country.

Detention/Access to Courts

Thai police routinely arrested refugees living outside the camps for illegal residence, and detained and transferred them to the Immigration Detention Center (IDC). Refugees from border states could decide between voluntary deportation and indefinite detention. Camp-based refugees who sought employment outside the camp also risked arrest, usually while in transport to work sites. Police often demanded bribes for their release.

In August, police raided a house outside of Bangkok and detained 170 North Korean refugees, all of whom UNHCR listed as persons of concern. Thai courts fined them about $160 each, but they could not pay and instead chose a 30-day jail sentence. Once released, all 175 sought refuge in South Korea. Police reinstated roundups of North Korean asylum seekers in October.

In November, authorities arrested over 155 Lao Hmong. Although they did not deport them as planned, they remained in detention as of May 2007.

UNHCR could access asylum seekers detained in the Bangkok airport, but could not visit some refugee groups in other areas, including ethnic Shan and Lao Hmong refugees. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the International Committee of the Red Cross, could access and provide aid to these groups. Prisoners and observers continued to report overcrowded conditions, scarce medical services, and physical abuse from Thai guards. Refugees detained in Bangkok from non-border states had access to a 24-hour hotline to request UNHCR intervention, which generally succeeded in procuring release for refugees whom authorities had not yet transferred to the IDC. Authorities in the IDC set quotas on how many refugees to release on bail at a given time, but bail depended on the refugees' chances of resettlement. The IDC housed detained refugees alongside foreigners exiting the Thai prison system. UNHCR and a Bangkok Refugee Center affiliate jointly monitored the prisons.

In the refugee camps, ethnic Karen and Karenni rebel groups influenced traditional justice systems through mostly male camp committees, few of whom had legal training. These committees operated independently of Thai or international law and often marginalized other ethnic or political groups. They could impose penalties including forced labor, fines, expropriation, detention, and expulsion. In extreme cases, rebel groups took victims back over the border for execution. Sexual and gender-based violence, however, often went unpunished or with small fines, and, in at least one 2005 case, the traditional authorities proposed that the survivor marry her assailant. In other cases, committees charged rape survivors as accomplices to adultery and punished them equally with the perpetrators. Thai authorities made no arrests in eighty percent of refugee murder cases from 2003 to 2006 due to lack of evidence, and prosecuted even fewer of these cases.

In late 2006, UNHCR implemented an Administration of Justice program to have Thai law apply to serious crimes, and the first of seven planned Legal Aid Centers was set to open some time in 2007. In January 2007, the Thai Justice Ministry announced plans to issue Thai Law handbooks in Thai to refugees to deter serious criminal activity, particularly rape and murder.

As of May 2007, authorities had issued some 85,000 identity cards to camp-based refugees.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Refugees and asylum seekers could not freely move in Thailand, and needed written prior approval to enter or leave camps. Thai police frequently arrested and deported refugees caught outside camps. Many participants in the restrictive migrant labor program (below) were refugees and had greater mobility, although still limited, than those in the camps.

Mae Hong Son governor Direk Konkleeb threatened to send ethnic Padaung refugees from Myanmar to the camps or have them deported unless they agreed to consolidate to a convenient location for tourists and display their elongated necks in brass coils. Their third option was deportation.

Refugees were not eligible to receive international travel documents except for resettlement to a third country.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Refugees and asylum seekers could not work legally but as many as 40 percent of those in the camps sought illegal employment outside of the camps. For example, during harvest season, many camp residents in Mae Hong Son worked illegally in nearby garlic fields.

In March, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) reported a half-million worker labor shortage, and, in May, the Government allowed some 740,000 previously registered migrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar to renew their work permits for one year. The permits were for specific employers in limited, generally low-wage, sectors in a restricted set of locations not including the Bangkok area. Participants could not register as refugees and the RTG reported the names of all who participated to their Governments. Fees for the permit and the medical exam were 3,700 Baht (about $113) or about a month's wages and the process was cumbersome, requiring a minimum of five trips to government offices. Applicants or their employers had to go to the MOI's district office to register, back to the district office for photos and fingerprints, to the district hospital for the medical examination, to the provincial labor office to apply for the work permit, and back to the provincial office to pick up the permit. More trips could be necessary for information and forms. The MOL issued receipts for permit applications but employers generally kept the originals. To change employers, workers had to go through the process again with the new sponsor but the former employer could block this by refusing to return the original MOI registration. Only workers could enroll in the national health insurance system, not family members.

Even registered migrant workers could not form or lead labor unions, but could join unions formed and led by Thais. Local immigration officials, in apparent collusion with factory owners, deported even legally registered migrant workers who tried to strike.

Thailand also did not allow refugees to obtain business licenses or to hold title to or transfer business premises, farmland, homes, or other capital assets.

Public Relief and Education

The RTG allowed NGOs to provide medical and other services to refugees. Registered refugees in Bangkok received free basic medical services at the Bangkok Refugee Center Clinic, which also referred refugees to government hospitals and facilities. In such cases, the RTG reimbursed refugees for medical expenses and safeguarded them from arrest for their illegal status.

In October, the RTG established a Thai-language education program funded by UNHCR. The project operated in three majority-Karen refugee camps to help refugees to communicate with physicians and staff. The program was popular but could only provide about four teachers for 500 students.

Aid agencies struggled to replace staff that left for resettlement to third countries as the RTG prevented them from taking refugees outside for training. Thai nationals charged eight times the pay refugees had to accept to work in the camps.

The RTG allowed UNHCR to monitor conditions in nine camps along the border but not to maintain a permanent presence in them. Thailand limited NGO access to camps to those MOI approved, and journalists not registered with the MOI could not visit camps. Neither Thailand nor international donors included refugees in development programs.


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