Interview with Angkhana Neelaphaijit, Commissioner of The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand
Q: Khun Angkhana, thank you very much for being with us today at CPG. We really appreciate your time and are happy you were available to speak to us today. To begin, could you share some insights on the current situation of asylum seekers in Thailand and what kind of support the Thai government offer them?
A: First of all, since Thailand has not ratified the 1951 refugee convention, therefore definitions of refugees and legal obligations for the state are not based on that. So, when we talk about asylum seekers in Thailand, we can distinguish the asylum seekers into two categories. The first category are asylum seekers living in refugee camps, and the second category are overstaying asylum seekers. When we look at the asylum seekers living in refugee camps, most of them are located at the border, like Suan Phung and Maesot. These asylum seekers have moved to Thailand over many generations. The Thai government responses, by sending these asylum seekers back to their country of origin. The asylum seeker of the second category are overstaying asylum seekers. They don’t live like the others in camps but in cities and elsewhere in the country. At first, they come legally with all the necessary documents to Thailand, however, after their visa has expired, they remain in the country and overstay. For those who come to Thailand in order to stay, they have to get registered at the UNHCR based in Thailand. The UNHCR is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee. A problem here is the time it takes until a person gets interviewed. The time is not set and it can take unexpectedly long. Only asylum seekers and people classified as “Persons of Concern” who are in addition overstaying immigrants have the chance to get interviewed by the UNHCR.
Q: So a number of asylum seekers come to Thailand legally and then the visa expires. Their status changes overnight?
A: Yes, they first come legally to Thailand and then, their status changes to overstaying asylum seekers. Some of them may have “People of Concern” status, but they still have to remain at a detention facility after visa expiry. This is also related to the Thai immigration law of 1979, which forces the Thai immigration officials to send asylum seekers back to their home countries. But, here is a problem, because some of them can’t go back to their home country, due to dangerous living conditions for example. Then, if they can’t get immediately transferred to a third country, they have to stay in Thailand temporarily.
Sometimes, female asylum seekers are pregnant, but they cannot leave the detention centre. If they give birth, they will be taken to a hospital but have to return to their detention rooms right after it. Statistics have shown that around 10 people die in the detention rooms every year. We, from the Thai government perspective, try to offer these asylum seekers the best treatment, by providing ambulances, volunteer doctors and nurses. But right now, we can’t change the fact that there is limited space and it is not what people are used to live in. The fact that so many people have to live and share a very limited space, causes contagious diseases to spread, too.
With regards to children, there are two specific concerns about children of asylum seekers. The first issue involves children in detention rooms. A child is usually considered to be a child until it reaches the age of 18, however under the Thai immigration act 1979, a child is only considered a child until the age of 15. This means, there is a gap of three years due to different laws defining the legal age limitation of a child. Really, there should be a principal decision that a child should live under better circumstances and the current living standards in the detention facilities are not child appropriate. A child remains innocent and only follows the decision their parents make. Even though Thailand doesn’t have the policy to give citizenship to refugees, they still have the right to register their birth in Thailand. We should stop sending children to detention rooms after birth.
The second issue is categorizing asylum seekers, because some of them are willing to use Thailand as a hub-country, others however come to commit crime. Those, we should immediately send back to their home country. The government is already working on a solution on that issue, by cooperating with different government sectors. Regarding the case of children in detention rooms the Thai government finally decided on January 2019, to allow mothers to live with their children outside the detention rooms. So, we provide all the social services other children in Thailand receive, to children of asylum seekers. These are services like educational services, social healthcare and the permission to do certain jobs. These are the most advanced services we can provide.
The right to obtain release on bail is another advantage that enables asylum seekers to enter Thailand as a family. Once the mother and child are outside the detention rooms, they have the right to obtain release on bail. However, obtaining release on bail is very costly at around $1600, and has to be paid by the asylum seeker themselves. For financial support, asylum seekers however have the opportunity to ask local and international NGOs or other institutions in the country. But it still remains one of the main obstacles they are facing. I suggest that Thailand should apply a better categorization system. I also think, that we should establish a zone for asylum seekers in order to live under more human living standards.
Q: Could the Thai government play a greater role in the process, for instance help interviewing asylum seekers and help UNHCR to make the process faster? What is important to know on the government side?
A: It is important that the police knows the different types of asylum seekers and the system for categorization. Asylum seekers who enter illegally will have be send back, but if we find out that they can’t return because of the situation in their home country, we will have to separate them out from illegal migrant workers and asylum seekers who are committing crimes in Thailand. Migrants who declare a different occupation on their papers from the actual practices, also have to leave Thailand.
Q: Recently, there was a case involving Saudi-Arabian female who came to Thailand. She was using Thailand as a hub-country in order to go to Australia. Could you please tell more details about this case and why it made the news headlines?
A: This case involves a girl from Saudi Arabia who tried to use Thailand as a hub in order to get to Australia. The problem was that she had not passed Thai immigration by the time her family called the Saudi Arabian embassy in Thailand, requesting them to return their daughter back home. When she arrived, she refused to return and insisted to meet UNHCR officials. According to Thai immigration law, officials only have the right to investigate her case for seven days and during this time, UNHCR will have to interview her. After passing her interview, the girl then had to wait to get permission to enter Australia. In order to pass the UNHCR interview, there are certain criteria and conditions, which she fulfilled. In this case, her strongest point was that she could get murdered if she returns back to Saudi Arabia.
Q: What was the reason for Thailand to send her back to Saudi-Arabia at first?
A: It was because her family requested the Saudi Arabian embassy to return her back, this influenced the decision for Thailand. The UNHCR rated this family issue differently after the interview took place. They were concerned that this case is beyond normal family issues and in fact about life and death.
Q: The UNHCR came in and took the right actions?
A: Based on their concern that this case is beyond normal family issues. A problem this has underlined is the problem of a bottle neck. She had to wait like all others for the interview with UNHCR. It takes too long.
Q: Do we have the tools to help making this process faster?
A: We could solve this bottle neck problem, if we were to cooperate closer with the UNHCR. In addition, we could also learn to conduct these kinds of interviews by ourselves or look for a third country in some cases. In conclusion, we really should categorize people better so we can look after those who seek asylum.
Q: Khun Angkhana, thank you very much for your time!
The interview was conducted and translated by Phongchisanu Sakkiettibutra, Public Relations Officer, CPG. The original is in Thai language and is the only authoritative source for direct quotations of the commissioner. The translation is unofficial and a service provided by CPG for the convenience of our readers. CPG can provide a copy of the original upon request.