The plight of urban refugees in Bangkok is increasingly important to understand. Here’s a list of frequently asked questions with as many reliable links as I could find to help inform more people about the issue.
Who are urban refugees?
If you don’t know what a “refugee” is then start here.
If you do know what a refugee is, then maybe you think of them as living in camps and UN created settlements. While this is true in many war torn countries, increasingly refugees are fleeing into major cities such as Bangkok to seek recognition as a “refugee” according to international law.
Read the stories of a few urban refugees around the world in the BBC article Hidden Lives: The Untold Story of Urban Refugees.
Why do people flee to Bangkok?
People may choose to seek asylum in Thailand for two main reasons: the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) for the region is headquartered in Bangkok and Thailand is comparatively easier to enter than other countries (more international flights, visas on entry for a number of countries, and higher living standard than surrounding countries).
It’s important to understand that while many people may choose to go to Bangkok to register with the UNHCR, they do not intend to live in Thailand long term, hoping mostly to be resettled to third countries once they receive refugee status.
What are refugees and asylum seekers’ biggest problems in Bangkok?
The majority of those fleeing their country for places like Bangkok are unprepared for the challenges of life in a city often hostile to foreigners. Nor are they prepared for the harmfully slow legal process required to be eligible for aid or resettlement to another country.
Harmfully Slow Casework
To be determined as a “refugee” by international law, making you eligible for aid from groups such as the UNHCR, is a difficult process. Each family must build a case for their reasons for fleeing and be interviewed by the UNHCR before deliberation about their case begins. On top of these challenges, Bangkok seems to have a backlog of those waiting to have their cases heard by the UNHCR, which means they may need to survive for several consecutive months waiting for an appointment and waiting to for their results with scarce resources and little outside support.
Hostile Thai Environment
Thailand, marketed in wealthy countries as ‘The Land of Smile’ can be quite inhospitable to those who arrive on their shores seeking refuge from countries in turmoil. First, because the Thai government doesn’t recognize refugees, instead considering them illegal immigrants who can be questioned, detained, and deported on a whim. Furthermore, public knowledge of refugees revolves around a long, tumultuous relationship with Myanmar and the Burmese who are widely discriminately against and considered by mostly as opportunistic, economic migrants.
Fear of Arrest
Thailand’s refusal to recognize refugees has created a system whereby refugees can be detained as illegal immigrants, despite their status according to the UNHCR. This means families are often susceptible to manipulation and swindling by people who threaten to have them arrested —including police!
Families who are arrested, often from raids on apartments where they are living, are then held in the squalid conditions of Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center (IDC). Men, women, and children are held in the IDC facility indefinitely or until they are 1) deported if they originated in a neighboring country or 2) resettled to a third country by the UNHCR.
Fear of Homelessness
The urban setting means most families have a great deal of worry over their living situation, often their largest expense. Their dependency on savings, NGOs who may only help in small ways, and occasional handouts from religious organizations makes families extremely vulnerable. They are often price swindled out of money by opportunistic neighbors and landlords. But in the worst cases, since they cannot legally work, this can result in work or sexual exploitation.
What can YOU do to help?
Make a small donation monthly to help us sponsor the most basic needs of a family.
Join a volunteer event and find out more opportunities to help locally.
Educate your family and friends about refugees and find out the needs of an organization supporting them in your area.
Where can I find out more on urban refugees and other organizations working to help?
There are many other great organizations working to help refugees who need your attention and support. Here are a few: Asylum Access, Thai Committee for Refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service, & International Rescue Committee