SAMUT PRAKAN — Thai immigration authorities said Thursday they would move a Zimbabwean family stuck for months at Suvarnabhumi International Airport to a detention center in downtown Bangkok.
Two days after an airport employee brought attention to the plight of the eight-member family, a deputy immigration police chief said the family would be moved to the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu area, a facility where refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants and their families are held for years at a time.
Col. Cherngron Rimapdee said the UNHCR is attempting to find a third-party country where the family can stay as refugees.
“The UNHCR has accepted this case into our care,” Panupat Danpanich, an assistant liaison officer with UNHCR Thailand, said Thursday. “We cannot comment on the details of their case to protect the privacy of the individuals, but we are definitely finding the best solution for them.”
A Nov. 14 UNHCR letter about the family’s status obtained by Khaosod English indicates it was aware of their situation and had notified the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The Zimbabwean family consists two men, two women and four children. The children are three boys and a girl, aged between 2 and 11. Cherngron said Ukraine International Airlines, which was previously forced to return the family to Thailand, has been paying for their food.
Immigration police said the four adults and four children first arrived in Thailand in May. They attempted to leave in October, at which point they became stuck at the airport.
Thailand does not recognize refugee status, even when conferred by the United Nations. Thousands of asylum seekers and refugees live in the capital’s margins, unable to work and at risk of arrest, while they await resettlement in a third country. Cases can languish for years at a time.
Cherngron said the family first attempted to leave Thailand on Oct. 23 for Barcelona but were barred from boarding at passport control because they had overstayed their Thai visas by five months, according to Cherngron.
Thai authorities then attempted to send the family back to Zimbabwe, but they refused, Cherngron said, claiming their home country was unstable and unsafe.
There is currently no open conflict in the southern African nation, but in November the military seized control to oust longtime strongman Robert Mugabe from power after 37 years in power. It installed former Mugabe ally and vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as president.
Some on social media contested that their nation was unsafe.
“I’m tweeting from Zimbabwe. There is no instability to speak of,” @ElijahMinana tweeted. “Economic challenges – yes. The country is calm, & as we head for elections, politicians are campaigning in a peaceful atmosphere. Zimbabweans do their country a disservice when they lie about its circumstances.”
On Nov. 7, the family tried to board a Ukraine International Airlines flight to Mauritania connecting through Ukraine and Spain. After flying to Ukraine, they were barred from boarding the onward flight to Spain because they did not have the necessary documents to enter Spain, Cherngron said.
I’m tweeting from Zimbabwe. There is no instability to speak of. Economic challenges – yes. The country is calm, & as we head for elections, politicians are campaigning in a peaceful atmosphere. Zimbabweans do their country a disservice when they lie about its circumstances
— Elijah Minana (@ElijahMinana) December 28, 2017
The family was sent back to Thailand on Nov. 13. Back at the airport, they could not re-enter the kingdom because they had overstayed their previous Thai visas.
About 10 passengers stay in Suvarnabhumi Airport’s Detention Room per day. Most stay for hours, but some stay for months, according to Airline Operators Committee Director Louis Moser.
“The family has been sleeping in the detention room, which the airport and immigration police have set aside for them. We were afraid that staying in common areas could be inconvenient for them, especially since they have small children too,” Moser said.