Field notes

Life in in-between land

Trapped in limbo, over 7,000 asylum seekers live in Bangkok and Thailand's other urban centres. They include Syrians, Somalis and Pakistanis who fled persecution in their homeland and were smuggled into Thailand. The Thai authorities don't recognise their status as refugees and asylum seekers, and they are at risk of arrest

BANGKOK • Today is visiting day for Jacob (names of all asylum seekers have been changed to protect their identities). He is wearing a cap, sunglasses, knee-length shorts and hiking boots haphazardly laced up - his best rendition of a tourist in Bangkok. He slings a backpack over his beefy frame and steps out onto the streets.

Today, the 32-year-old man will not think like an asylum seeker evading arrest by Thai police. He will carry himself like a tourist crossing the city to meet his sister.

With luck, no one will ask why this tourist is lugging 5kg worth of homemade lentil soup packed in recycled plastic bags. The soup is a gift for Parveen, 34, who fled Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city, with him in 2013.

Brother and sister live apart for their safety, and meet just once a month to avoid arousing suspicion.

"This is good!" she exclaims after sampling Jacob's deep yellow dhal. Jacob beams. In that moment of warmth, the anxiety of living as fugitives in Thailand is eased.

DISCOURAGING ARRIVALS

If we send them to another country that they want - and they mostly want to go to a developed country - they will use this channel all the time. If we send them as fast as we can, they will come as fast as they can.

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL PRAWUT THAVORNSIRI, national police spokesman, on why the Thai police need to arrest and deport asylum seekers

Jacob and Parveen are among more than 7,000 asylum seekers who live in Bangkok and Thailand's other urban centres.

LYING LOW

Whenever we have problems, we try to solve them by ourselves, so the police don't come. (When we see Thai people), we give way to them and let them pass first.

"SHAUN", former telemarketer from Lahore, 22, describing the pains that he and other asylum seekers take to avoid drawing attention to themselves

Drawn to Asean's second-largest economy by readily available tourist visas, and deposited here by human smuggling networks, they come with the sole objective of being resettled eventually in a third country.

More than 40 nationalities reside here, including Syrians and Somalis fleeing the ravages of war, as well as Pakistani and Vietnamese minorities who say they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.


An asylum seeker from Pakistan at the small apartment he shares with 11 family members. He says he was forced to flee from his homeland when his brother, who is Catholic, married a Muslim woman, and they were attacked by their neighbours. Many asylum seekers in Thailand live in similarly cramped quarters while waiting for their applications to be processed.


Most, however, are unprepared for the long wait that ensues, as they are packed into dingy apartments on the city fringes - or detained in even more cramped state immigration facilities - until the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) grants them refugee status and resettles them in another country.

According to a report published by UNHCR in June, resettlement submissions made by its office in Thailand are consistently among the highest in number.

Last year, it was ranked eighth in the world, even though the number of submissions originating from here had dropped to 4,800, half the level seen in the year before. Neighbouring Malaysia accounted for more than 11,000 submissions last year.

Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Thai police do not recognise documents granted by UNHCR to asylum seekers and refugees. As a result, any asylum seeker who does not possess a valid passport and visa - which is very common - is constantly subjected to arrest and harassment.

UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan says the world body is "sensitising law enforcement and immigration authorities that people with these UNHCR documents should not be arrested or detained".

However, national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri insists that the police have every right to arrest and deport the asylum seekers, who he believes are mostly economic migrants.

"We have to send them back because it's our law," he tells The Straits Times.

Since coming to power through a coup in May last year, the military government has tried to fix the lax controls that have made Thailand a destination or transit point for millions of undocumented migrants or smuggled or trafficked persons.

In March this year, its crackdown on human trafficking reportedly also led to the arrests of more than 100 refugees and asylum seekers.

Lieutenant-General Thavorn reasons that making it easier for asylum seekers would only encourage more to come.

"If we send them to another country that they want - and they mostly want to go to a developed country - they will use this channel all the time.

"If we send them as fast as we can, they will come as fast as they can."

THE LONG WAIT

In reality, the process can take years. UNHCR estimates that, currently, 1.15 million refugees around the world need to be resettled, but only about 80,000 spaces are available each year.

Jacob, a former security manager, says he was threatened and shot at by Muslim radicals in his home city of Karachi, for providing security arrangements for a Catholic church. His interview with UNHCR is scheduled for 2017.

Eighteen-year-old Mohamed from Somalia, meanwhile, says he has been interviewed twice by UNHCR since arriving in Bangkok two years ago, but he has no idea how much longer he has to wait.

Aid agencies working with refugees say that most of the asylum seekers in Bangkok are Pakistani Christians, who have been attacked or who fear being targeted for allegedly breaching blasphemy laws in the Muslim-majority country.

Clusters of asylum seekers from some countries are large enough for them to fill up entire apartment blocks, which serve as the first stop for many new arrivals.

One such building sits in a cul de sac amid a warren of lanes on the outskirts of Bangkok. Each 25 sq m room comes with a toilet attached to a small balcony, and can take anywhere from five to 15 family members. This is where they eat, cook, sleep and pass their days, trying to avoid drawing any kind of attention to themselves.

"We let the children play outside only for a limited time," says Shaun, a 22-year-old former telemarketer from the Pakistani city of Lahore. His brother was beaten up for marrying a Muslim woman.

"Whenever we have problems, we try to solve them by ourselves, so the police don't come.

"(When we see Thai people), we give way to them and let them pass first. I give a wai and I say sawatdee krap," he says, referring to the traditional Thai greetings.

Money is often scarce for asylum seekers here because they cannot work legally. UNHCR and aid groups such as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Caritas Bangkok provide a combination of small stipends, psychosocial and medical aid, and education, as well as other kinds of help.

Even so, life is grim. Stained mattresses are used without sheets. Old clothes stuffed into cotton cases serve as pillows. Many eat only two meals a day, and meat is a luxury.

According to JRS advocacy and communications officer Nick Jones, many of the hundreds of Somalis here are unaccompanied minors. They are the most vulnerable group, eking out a living without the guidance of any adult.

Mohamed, for example, shares a room with three other Somali youths. It is a haven to him, after the torture and beatings in his home country that he would only hint at having experienced. Yet, cooped up in their room most days, the four run out of things to say to one another.

"We talk to one another, and we tell some stories," he says, gazing into the distance. "But, sometimes, it's kind of strange to talk about what you have deep inside."

Mohamed longs to attend college like Thai youngsters, but he is keenly aware that he tempts fate with every step he takes outside his room.

"I don't feel safe at all," he says.

"People… are being arrested every day. I'm just waiting for my turn to come."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'Life in in-between land '. Print Edition | Subscribe