Nestled on the outskirts of bustling Bangkok in an unassuming church, a small group of Vietnamese refugees find solace amongst the sanctuary’s pews, indulging in rousing song and shared worship. These cherished moments offer a fleeting respite from their precarious existence, a life spent in constant dread of arrest or deportation in a country where they are, in essence, invisible.
Thailand’s authorities, operating within a legal system that does not recognize the distinction between refugees and other migrants, often leave the countless individuals hiding in their midst in a disconcerting limbo. However, the imminent introduction of a new adjudication process aims to rectify this issue, promising discernment between genuine refugees at risk in their native lands and illegal denizens of the Thai state.
The reaction from refugees and humanitarian advocates alike is understandably apprehensive. This new system, they fear, could be wielded irresponsibly, potentially precipitating swifter deportations for those not granted asylum. Vietnamese pastor Sung Seo Hoa, himself an asylum seeker, encapsulates these fears. “We’re living in constant fear – fear of arrest, imprisonment, and forced return to Vietnam. This is the reality that haunts us round the clock, every single day,” he shares.
This looming dread shapes Hoa’s decision to evade the new screening process. He foresees discernable risks in application. The very system meant to bestow security could instead be a ticket to forced repatriation, a risk he’s unwilling to take.
“Putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop”
This haunting phrase coined by human rights expert Phil Robertson paints a grim picture of the imminent National Screening Mechanism. The mechanism, scheduled for launch on September 22, will thrust Thai police into the process of examining approximately 5,000 city dwelling refugees and asylum seekers for ‘protected person’ recognition, temporary residence permits, and access to healthcare and education, albeit not employment rights.
Robertson highlights a worrying aspect of this new system: a vague and unrefined catch-all “national security escape clause” which allows the Thai government to bypass certain individuals’ eligibility for refugee status without justification. This arbitrary authority might negatively impact specific groups such as Uyghurs from China, North Koreans, or the Rohingya Muslim minority from Myanmar.
The police’s role as principal adjudicators, according to Robertson, leaves room for corruption and abuse of power. The vagueness of the scheme, compounded by unresolved details concerning applicants’ potential incarceration in immigration detention centres, allows comfortably for a “pay-to-play” scenario amidst rampant trafficking and asylum-seeking crises.
Complicating matters further, the inclusion of criminal background checks may unintentionally target Myanmar’s anti-coup activists bearing “unfounded” criminal charges on their records, cautions Patrick Phongsathorn, from global rights advocacy group, Fortify Rights.
“A dissident swap shop”
This darkly humorous phrase infers Thailand’s questionable history of refoulement, a breach of international law, which includes the infamous 2015 deportation of 109 Uyghur individuals back to China, an act heavily criticized by human rights monitors. SYe further noted a marked trend of cooperation between regional governments in exchanging dissidents in a sinister ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ tactic.
Despite the significant concerns from the international community and the fear of the refugees themselves, Thai authorities maintain that their “respect for privacy and confidentiality” remain paramount, and the customary principle of non-refoulement is a fundamental component of their new policy. They maintain that applicants will have a 90-day grace period in which to appeal against a negative verdict. However, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ role in the screening process currently unclear, and concerns about this new protection mechanism’s fairness, efficiency, and transparency, the future remains uncertain for the thousands seeking asylum in Thailand.