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Invisible in plain sight

Refugees seeking asylum in Thailand face challenges

A refugee looks out the window of her apartment in Bangkok (photo: Valeria Racemoli) A refugee looks out the window of her apartment in Bangkok (photo: Valeria Racemoli)
  • Valeria Racemoli, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • October 17, 2011
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Adhi has given up hope. When she left Sri Lanka with her four children in 2009 she did not know what to expect. All that she was looking for was a place where she could finally feel safe from the war that had been devastating Sri Lanka for the past 20 years.

“The military were coming almost every day so we were afraid for our safety. My husband went to get the tickets to come to Bangkok, but he was kidnapped so I came alone. I was not able to look for my husband when he disappeared. I was alone and the military were coming every day to my house.”

She has been living in Bangkok and surviving alone with no access to work or the ability to provide for her children. For two years she has depended on the assistance of other organizations, and in March 2011 Adhi’s claim for refugee status was rejected by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR).

Adhi is just one of approximately 2,600 asylum seekers and refugees registered with the UNHCR in Bangkok. Hundreds of them are women and girls who came to Thailand either with their family or alone. Once in Bangkok they have to survive and provide for their children without any legal right to work or to health care, and depending on the assistance and the benevolence of organizations and individuals.

Muznah waited one year for her interview with UNHCR. According to the UNHCR Bangkok’s informational pamphlet for asylum seekers, the interview should occur within 12 weeks from registration. But after fleeing from Pakistan with her husband and children, Muznah has waited more than a year for her interview, and in that time her visa expired, causing her the additional burden of fearing arrest or deportation.

Thai law does not make any distinction between irregular migrants on one side, and asylum seekers and refugees that overstay their visa on the other. On the contrary, once their visas expire it allows for their arrest and indefinite detention at immigration detention centers.

Moreover, during their stay in Thailand most of the children are not able to continue their studies. While Thailand is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and it recognizes the right to education for young asylum seekers and refugees, few schools in Bangkok, mostly private international schools, are willing to accept them. Language barriers, the lack of understanding among Thai society of the specific needs of the urban refugee population and the parents’ inability to pay the school’s fees without a steady income are some of the factors that make this right unattainable. The Bangkok Refugee Center (BRC), UNHCR’s implementing partner in Bangkok, provides informal education for refugee children, but asylum seekers can only attend once a week.

“My biggest worry is not for my husband and me, but it is for my children. We saved our lives by coming here but I don’t know what will become of their future. The more we stay here waiting for something to happen the more they are missing out on their education and their future,” Muznah said.

Today, half of the world’s refugees live in cities and towns and a significant and growing percentage of them are women and children, as recognized by the UNHCR in its Urban Refugee Policy. Being denied the right to gain an income under national law, urban asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok are often left with no choice but to join the informal economy in an effort to provide for themselves and their dependents. Women and girls are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and human smuggling and trafficking.

In Bangkok unable to survive without assistance, some women and girls face no choice but to resort to what has been called “survival sex” as their only way to make an income. This seems to be especially true for single women and girls with or without children. Moreover, some nationalities seem to be more vulnerable to the risk of sexual exploitation as their communities provide little financial support.

Having worked with JRS as a psychosocial counselor for the past year, Zarah Alih knows very well the challenges that female asylum seekers and refugees have to face in Bangkok.

“Most women who come here get assistance from JRS for six months if they meet the ‘extremely vulnerable’ criteria. We provide housing assistance, economic assistance, referral for medical support and, of course, psychosocial counseling. However, once we stop our assistance, they have no capacity to work so they sell their jewelry and when that money runs out, they come back to us. Once they realize how long they have to stay in Thailand and how long NGOs are able to support them, they know they will have to figure out something else.”

According to its Urban Refugee Policy, UNHCR should place a high priority on establishing an environment that allows urban refugees to be self-reliant “as a way of retaining their dignity.” Their policy cannot be fully realized in Thailand because urban asylum seekers are not recognized by the Thai government. As part of her work, Zarah does her best to find income generating activities for them to do, struggling with language barriers (most of these women and girls do not speak English or Thai), limited previous work experience and security risks.

“We realise that due to the length of the Refugee Status Determination process (RSD) what we can do is actually insufficient to cover the whole stay in Thailand. That is why I try to point out activities for them but the challenges are many. Because of the risk of arrest we have encouraged income generation that happens at home. However, because of the same threat they often need to change apartments, thus making it difficult to keep the activity alive. Another challenge is represented by their lack of work experience. In the first session of a support group activity I ask them what they need. They need training. Even if they enjoyed the right to work legally, for many of them without any training their situation would not change,” Zarah said.

Based on her experience, Zarah finds that income-generating activities, such as beading hijabs or sewing, are more than just a way to make money. Activities take their minds off of waiting day after day for a UNHCR decision on their cases. And by increasing their ability to survive without assistance it also improves their sense of self-esteem and confidence while preparing them for the future.

Isolation in the city is another factor with which women and girl asylum seekers and refugees have to cope during their stay in Bangkok. Integration within Thai society is almost impossible to reach because of the many legal, social and language barriers. But also inside the refugee community solidarity among the different nationalities is still in many cases only a distant dream.

Urban refugees are often forgotten. They live anonymously. They do not live in refugee camps, where much funding and media attention is focused. In reality, they suffer from a lack of assistance compared to refugees living in camps where most services are coordinated and provided for by many NGOs. Safety, support, work skills, income and fast resettlement – these needs are just hopes for many of the hundreds of women seeking asylum in Bangkok.

“No girl would come here and leave her country if she could stay there and live a normal life,” Nikou said. “It is very difficult to be alone here.”

This feature appears courtesy of Jesuit Refugee Service Thailand. The author, Valerie Racemoli, is a legal officer for JRS Thailand. The full report can be viewed here.
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