Interview with Veerawit Tianchainan, Director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation
Not only Europe, but Southeast Asia is also facing growing numbers of refugees. Involved state agencies, international organizations and NGOs, are striving to find solutions for major legal, political and humanitarian challenges in the wake of the influx of refugees. Among those organizations is the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation (TRC), an international non-governmental organization engaged in the field of the protection and promotion of human rights for refugees, asylum seekers, stateless and internally displaced persons in Thailand and Southeast Asia. In the interview below TRC Founder and Executive Director Veerawit Tianchainan shares his thoughts on the current refugee situation and policy reforms aiming to ease the conditions for refugees in Thailand and looks at regional developments in ASEAN and Europe.
Q: Khun Veerawit, ‘refugees’ are currently one of the hotly debated issues in many countries in Europe in the light of an unprecedented influx of refugees. For Germany, experts estimate a total number of 1.5 Mio. in 2015. What are the current numbers for Thailand?
The total number of refugees in Thailand now is above 130.000 from around 40 countries. Most of them are coming from Myanmar. Some of them have been staying stay here more than 20 years. They came to Thailand as early as the migration from Myanmar to Thailand had started in the 1980s and has continued all over the years until the present because they are facing human rights violations. On the other side, we have also seen for the past 7, 8 years, the resettlement programs running. So far, I think the number of resettled refugees to third countries amounts to 60.000 to 70.000. However, there are still many of them staying inside refugee camps.
Q: How do you assess the living conditions in the refugee camps?
The conditions in the camps are not favorable. The refuges are not allowed to leave the camp, they are not allowed to work, and earn any income.
Young refugees who are born inside the camp stay and study in schools inside the camp. The curriculum is run by NGOs and the refugees’ communities. So, there are many problems associated with this long term staying inside the camp. The technical term used by the United Nations and international organizations is “refugee warehousing”, in the sense of keeping the refugees in a warehouse, locking them up and trying to forget about their existence until a solution is found. But refugees are human beings, they are not goods or stuff that you just keep there. We could understand this policy, if the refugees would be staying temporarily for like 3 months, 6 months or 1 year. Maybe for such a period a stay in the camp would be Ok, but 30 years is not temporary any more. We have second generations and even third generations in the camps. So, how could we have let that happen in Thailand: an entire population of over 10.000 people has been kept in the camp for so long. This is the reason why we have been working together with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and other rights group to advocate a policy change in Thailand. In this regard, we eagerly observe the political situation in Myanmar and what will happen after the upcoming election in November. If the conflict with the ethnic groups will be solved, it might be good for the refugees to return and start a new life. But if the situation is still not conducive for resettlement, then we must have something to change the way we treat them in Thailand, especially because we also see that the situation in camps is deteriorating and getting worse because after 30 years, the major donor – the European Union – and other countries have become “donor-fatigue”. After 30 years, they would like to shift their resources to something else. And in this particular situation, that means shifting the founding to Myanmar for the sake of the development in Myanmar. This has led to further limitations in terms of food, health care and education in the camps. For example, the food ration has been cut for a third tome and is actually below WHO standard.
Q: Where do you see further challenges to the situation of refugees in Thailand?
Thailand is the regional aviation hub in Southeast Asia and many people would by a ticket as the last resort to flee human rights persecutions. Even though Thailand is not a signature state to UN Refugee Convention, they come to Bangkok as the Office United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is based here in Bangkok where the refugees go to and seek asylum. The problem is that Thailand does not have a law that would allow the refugees to seeking asylum, meaning that any refugee and any asylum seeker who arrives in Thailand with tourist visa by which they enter the country will become an illegal immigrant after 30 days, or maximum 90 days, when their tourist visa will expire. He or she could then be subjected to arrest, detention and deportation. However over the years, rights groups and UN agencies have been advocating with the Thai government not to deport refugees back to the countries of origins because that would violate of the principle of non- refoulement.
So, what happens is that, asylum seekers or refugees, if they arrested, they could be detained in the immigration detention center, indefinitely, because the government cannot deport them. And they cannot be able to settle to another country. So they end up being detained in detain for many years. We have cases of detentions for 11 years. The conditions of the detention are actually very bad, according to many human rights reports. The detention cells are very packed, hygiene and sanitations very poor, and adults and children stay together. There are actually many reports of UN committees criticizing Thailand on this particular issue of immigration detention and detention of children.
Q: Where do you see possibilities for the improvement of the situation of the refugees?
We have been working together with UN agencies and international organizations to advocate a change of the refugee policy in Thailand. The TCR has been advocating for long that the Thai government should introduce a domestic law pertaining to the issue of asylum. We think that, even though the Thai government may not want to accede to the UN Refugee Convention, we should have our own domestic law in order govern asylum here in this country. And given the fact that we somehow close one eye and allow asylum seekers to stay here, why don’t we just make it official and then set up some timeframe which we propose to the Thai government as a timeframe for temporary asylum so that the Office of the UNHCR could use the time of the temporary asylum to determine whether that person is a refugee according to the Refugee Convention or not. And if they are eventually recognized as refugees, they could be resettled to a third country. By doing so Thailand would not have to be afraid that the refugee asylum seeker would end up in Thailand for a really long time. And the refugee will not need to suffer by infinite fear that they could be arrested any time.
A further policy we proposed to the government is to allow refugees to work legally in Thailand. In a way we could adapt the migrant worker program which Thailand has agreed on with the Myanmar government on the basis of a MoU. According to this agreement Burmese migrants are granted a temporary passport and a work permit. So if we adopt this model with regards to the refugees, who cannot be resettled, give them legal status and allow them – similarly to migrant works – to work legally for two years with the possibility of an extension of two years, this will reduce the anxieties and also end the long term warehousing. At the same time it will benefit the Thai economy because there is now a demand for workers in Thailand, and the Thai population is not providing the required number of workers. We have proposed this policy to the government early this year and have received positive response from the concerned Ministries.
So, what we are advocating to the government is not actually from TCR alone. We have proposed the policy of a temporary asylum for refugees together with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and the Inter- Government Agency Working Group comprising representatives of the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, and the Immigration Bureau, as well as other stake holders. We proposed that the government could amend the Immigration Act of Thailand and add a few articles to the Act. We have had several rounds of discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council. It is now on the table, and we would like the government to take it seriously.
Q: Have there been any changes in Thailand’s refugee policy under the military government?
In the very beginning following the coup the government was very strict on refugees. There were trials to deport refugees in the camp back to Burma. Urban refugees were arrested and detain and deported. However, after some months, that did not happen anymore. Rights groups have been in communication with the government on how we would be able to contribute to the policy of not deporting refugees or forced deportation. And the military government also respected that. There haven’t been any deportations from the camps to Burma. In terms of the treatment of refugees, however, it is getting stricter for refugees. In the past they could have found a way to leave the camp and do some irregular work outside the camps, but now the government is getting stricter, so it is more difficult for them to be able to find irregular works outside the camp. And even though the government did not put them in the trial or send them back, it pressures refugees that they would have to return Burma. So I think that is the general situation we have found. For the urban refugees, overall there is no dramatic change except the group of Uighurs from China. But that may not be linked to a policy of the government, but maybe to the intervention by the Chinese government.
So apart from these we see some improvement pertaining to the problem of children in detention. The police try not to arrest children and to allow bail in cases involving children.
So we see some positive development. But overall we have not seen as much improvement as we expected. Take the situation of the Rohingya. On the one hand, we have to give credit to the government for cracking down all those illegal camps and reduce those detained in those camps. However, after the rescue, the Rohingya are still in detention without any prospect of resolution.
This is another policy that we would like the government to reform. Because the situation now is that the Rohingya would like to move to Malaysia where they relatives of family member are staying. But the law of Thailand is so strict in the sense that they would have to go back to where they came from. So if they came from Myanmar, they will have to be deported back to Myanmar but not Malaysia. And because of that, obstacle, they cannot further go to Malaysia and they get stuck. So we are trying to discuss with the government and policy makers on how best it will be able to resolve the situation because it is not good to keep Rohingya detention indefinitely.
In general, I think that the Thai government tends to make decisions on the spot, to solve the immediate problem, but not to look at the problems from a long-term perspective: so if they are in detention, if they are in labor camps, just crack down the camp releasing them, rescue them, don’t think longer what we are going do with them. And situation of Rohingya is not new, it has been ongoing for many years, but every time, we still respond only to the given the situation goes bad.
Q: Why is that so?
I think it is because of the attitude of the authorities on refugees and asylum seekers. The attitude is that they don’t want these people to be in this country. And because of that, they will do anything to prevent refugees and asylum seekers to come to Thailand. And they only respond because the situation was so bad, that is why their solutions are only very short-term ones.
Q: So, it is about deterrence?
Yes, but it does not solve the problem and does not prevent people from coming to Thailand, because having the options of getting killed in their own country and suffering a difficult situation in Thailand, people will choose possible detention instead of getting killed. But, is that wise for the Thai government to treat them that way when we are calling ourselves a human rights-recognizing and -promoting country? That Thailand’s candidacy for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council failed is because the international community has also looked very closely on how countries treat refugees.
Q: Leaving Thailand behind, how do you assess the ASEAN in dealing with refugees?
With regards to the question of a regional response to the refugee problem, the Rohingya is very good case study for the ASEAN, because the country of origin is a member state of ASEAN and the countries involved are Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. India and Australia and even the Philippines were also involved in the discussion. The solution found in the context of the refugee crisis in summer this year is a short term solution with Malaysia and Indonesia providing shelter to the refugees for one year before repatriation or resettlement to a third country. Unfortunately, Thailand did not allow those boats to disembark in Thailand for domestic political reasons.
The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration contains the right to seek asylum. Seen in this light, the ASEAN as a group falls short of the standard that the member states have agreed upon by signing the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. So the ‘ASEAN refugee policy’ is an ongoing process, and I think the end of the monsoon season will see boats coming out again. It will become another big test for the ASEAN.
Q: And compared to Europe? How do you see the developments in Europe?
Europe is for us in Southeast Asia a very good case study on global refugee policies because whatever the European Union decides on this matter will set precedents for other countries. And we observe if the European Union will be able to put into action the standards of human rights and humanitarian treatment of refugees or if the European Union is just giving lip service. So we see that there is a lot ongoing discussion on practical solutions to respond to staggering numbers of refuges in Europe and also that the European governments are discussing about how they would be able to respond to the situation in the countries of origin and how it would be possible to stop refugees from fleeing their country. So I think, if the European Union and the international communities would be able to find mechanisms to address the issue in the short term, medium term and long term, that maybe something Asian countries would be able to learn from.
Thank you very much for the interview, Khun Veerawit.
The interview was conducted by Dr. Duc Quang Ly, CPG Project Manager. Pictures by Maria Achrait