OPINION: Thailand’s government must not waver on its refugee policy

Thailand suffers from a mixed reputation when it comes to its protection of refugees and asylum seekers. While the country was once considered a safe haven for refugees fleeing armed conflict in Cambodia and Myanmar, in recent years, refugees have bore the brunt of the country’s crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Over the last six years, Thailand’s handling of asylum seekers and refugees has been notoriously mercurial. As a result, the country has been put under pressure by rights groups and the international community for its treatment of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, its deportation of Uighur refugees to China, and its detention of refugees and asylum seekers from around the world.

The Thai junta, which came to power in 2014, has sought to repair its reputation by making numerous pledges to protect refugees in the country. In September 2016, at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the United Nations (UN) in New York, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha pledged to end the detention of refugee and asylum seeker children and to establish a screening mechanism for refugees.

Last January, several government agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on alternatives to detention for children. Due to Thailand’s lack of recognition of the status of asylum seekers and refugees, asylum seekers and refugees unlucky enough to be arrested often face indefinite detention in Immigration Detention Centres (IDC), where conditions are notoriously poor.

The MoU that was signed last year recognised that conditions in IDCs were not suitable for children and acknowledged that children should only be detained as a measure of last resort and any detention period should be as brief as possible. The MoU also prioritises the best interests of the child, affirming government responsibility to ensure children remain under their family’s care. As a result of Thailand’s signing of the MoU, mothers could be released on bail from IDCs with their children and housed in a shelter. Paradoxically, the measures outlined in the MoU have not been applied to fathers, who are still detained in IDCs and separated from their children.

At the end of last year, the Thai Cabinet also approved the establishment of a screening mechanism to identify those in need of protection.

The Thai Cabinet’s approval of a screening mechanism theoretically represents a feat for refugees and asylum seekers and will hopefully afford more protection to those seeking help in Thailand. The codification of protection mechanisms for refugees is a step in the right direction. However, many of these measures and policies providing protection to refugees and asylum seekers had previously been applied under previous governments, albeit in an ad hoc way. The concern, as always, remains whether the implementation of the screening mechanism will indeed help those most vulnerable.

Thailand has yet to accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. In the absence of domestic legislation that complies with international refugee law, which recognises and protects the legal rights of refugees, all migrants found in Thailand in violation of the Immigration Act are subject to potential arrest, regardless of their status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In an example of this, in August 2018 police arrested some 170 Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers, including about 50 children in Nonthaburi’s Bang Yai District. Some of the arrested had been recognised as refugees by UNHCR. After serving their prison terms for violation of the Immigration Act, the women with children were moved to a shelter, while the men are detained in an IDC.

In recent years, the Thai Government has made numerous pledges to protect refugees in Thailand, including by adopting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and endorsing the Global Compact on Refugees during the UN General Assembly in December 2018. Last November, Thailand also signed the ASEAN Declaration on the Rights of Children in Context of Migration.

Hopefully these are genuine commitments and not just paying lip service with little impact on the ground.

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