Saudi asylum case prods Thais towards reform of tough refugee policy
January 21 2019 06:37 PM
Foreign detainees are pictured behind bars at an immigration detention centre in Bangkok
Foreign detainees are pictured behind bars at an immigration detention centre in Bangkok during a visit organized by authorities for journalists


On a television set in a grim, overcrowded Bangkok detention centre refugees closely followed Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's quest for resettlement, as the 18-year-old asylum-seeker's case spurred hopes of a major policy turn from Thailand -- a country that does not recognise refugees.
Qunun fled her family to Bangkok, barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and staved off deportation with her Twitter feed, ultimately gaining refuge in Canada on January 12.
Thai authorities were initially caught flat-footed by the young Saudi's bold social media campaign.
But in the days since they have promised to address some of the lingering issues of indefinite detention and deportation of asylum seekers.
On Monday Thai authorities signed an MoU to end the detention of all child refugees and asylum seekers.
It was welcomed by the UNHCR as a "positive example" of the kingdom's increasingly humane approach to the issue.
Rights groups have for years condemned Thailand, which is not a signatory to the UN's convention protecting refugees, for its hostility to asylum seekers -- often trapping them on a carousel between detention and work in the black economy.
An estimated 900 adults remain in Bangkok's main grubby immigration detention centre (IDC), many asylum seekers hoping to be resettled like Qunun but fearing an endless extension to their months, or years, of limbo.
Despite its hardline to asylum seekers, Thailand's lax visa rules, multiple entry points and graft-prone officials have made it an easy staging-post for those escaping conflict, persecution and poverty.
The kingdom wants that reputation to change.
But in the wake of Qunun's case immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn has also vowed to recalibrate the detention policy, saying the kingdom will no longer deport anyone "involuntarily".
Knocking the issue over to the UNHCR, which finds countries to resettle asylum seekers, Surachate says the agency must speed up its processes.
On Monday he led a rare media tour of the Bangkok IDC to boost faith in his pledge to change the system.
Detainees played sports behind a high grill as the medai tour began, while others queued to call family members -- opportunities available just twice a week to the scores packed into the centre.
At the end of 2018 there were around 1,000 asylum seekers in Thailand compared to more than 7,000 in 2014. The UNHCR cites the drop as evidence of faster processing of cases to resolve the backlog.
But less than one percent of the world's refugees are resettled each year while the number of places available "continues to decline", according to a UNHCR spokesperson.
Ahmed, a refugee from Somalia, was locked up at the Bangkok IDC with his brother.
Like Qunun, he too hopes to be resettled in Canada. But the similarities end there -- he has been in detention for four, long years.
"Nothing is moving forward," he told AFP."But we are holding on."
Others have given up hopes for resettlement.
Lama, a Syrian, fled the war-ravaged country four years ago while pregnant with twins.
She and her husband sold their belongings and bought a plane ticket to Thailand.
They obtained UN refugee status in 2017 but were placed in detention centres to await possible resettlement.
The monotonous, overcrowded life in the IDC wore them down and they decided to give up their quest for asylum in early January and head back to Syria.
"It's very hard to be here again," Lama told AFP from Damascus. "We never leave home (because of) security issues... but at least we are all together."

Last updated: January 21 2019 07:02 PM

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