Located within the bustling expanse of Bangkok lies a church, offering a sanctuary to a multitude of Vietnamese refugees. Fleeing from turbulent homelands, these asylum seekers indulge in moments of tranquility during the euphoria of their worship services, seeking a temporary escape from a reality marred by the incessant specter of arrest or deportation. Though Thailand, a non-signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, fails to distinguish between refugees and general migrants, these displaced souls seek refuge under its expansive umbrella.
In the face of changing times, a novel system is slated for implementation later this month. Tailored with the promise of a distinction mechanism between those for whom return spells out danger and illegal immigrants, the system braces for its debut.
However, this proposal has met with its share of skepticism. Refugees and human rights advocates have voiced concern, fearing the misuse of the system as an unnerving gateway to expedited deportations. Vietnamese pastor, Sung Seo Hoa, residing illegally in Thailand, echoes this apprehension among his kin. A representative of Vietnam’s oppressed Hmong minority, Hoa fled from his native highlands more than a decade ago, evading the grasping clutches of the communist government. Yet, even in supposed refuge, fear lurks at every corner.
Coming this September 22nd, under the looming shadow of the new National Screening Mechanism, Thai police will instigate a large-scale vetting process of approximately 5,000 predominantly urban refugees and asylum seekers. Upon securing a “protected person” label, applicants will be granted temporary residence permits. Albeit a lack of work rights, access to healthcare and school facilities paints a promising incentive.
Nevertheless, apprehensions continue to be part of the narrative. With broad, undefined provisions tied to national security, the possibility of a ‘national security escape hatch’ lurks ominously. Critics argue that this could be directly exploited to exclude potential refugees arbitrarily, without the necessity for a justification. Vulnerable groups such as Uyghurs from China, the Rohingya Muslim minority from Myanmar, and North Koreans face an increased risk.
Moreover, the controversial role of police as arbiters of the screening committee has raised eyebrows. Concerns surrounding potential corruption, bias, and abuse of power are prompting fears of a system ‘ripe for abuse’.
Furthermore, apprehensions persist over the inclusion of criminal background checks within the screening process. Potential pitfalls could mean entrapping Myanmar anti-coup activists with baseless criminal charges against their names. Even as implementation details remain under discussion, the system’s potential to entrap applicants within the cycle of immigration detention is gathering critique.
Thailand’s controversial history of refugee deportations further feeds the cycle of mistrust. Notable instances include the 2015 expulsion of 109 Uyghurs to China and the 2021 deportation of four Cambodian dissenters, who faced immediate arrest upon their return home.
In response, the Thai Department of International Organisations has pledged respect for privacy and confidentiality, reiterating its commitment to non-refoulement, thereby ensuring failed applicants will not be forcibly returned to dangerously volatile homelands.
While the impending reality of a new system looms on the horizon, it remains unclear how long the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will continue current screenings. The agency holds hopes that Thailand will establish a fair, transparent protection mechanism aligned with international standards, nurturing a realm where the displaced may finally find a lasting sanctuary.