BANGKOK — Bags embroidered with Mhong motifs, notebooks painted with henna patterns, table runners made from Pakistani fabrics. These were just some of the products made by refugees living in Bangkok for sale at a fair held on Sunday at Bangkok 1899 to mark World Refugee Day, observed every June 20.
A closer look at the vendors at the fair, organized by a coalition of local and international NGOs, reveal rich stories of refugees striving to build stable, self-sufficient lives of dignity – even under their precarious status under Thai law and in the face of futures of uncertainty.
One Pakistani refugee, who identified himself as Cyprian, and his wife initiated the “Hunarmand” project two years ago to help refugees earn a living by producing handicrafts made from Pakistani fabrics which are sold locally and online.
Cyprian, who fled Karachi due to the persecution of Christians, observes that NGOs are not always adequately resourced to reliably support all refugees living in Thailand. For the former engineer, employment opportunities for refugees are the sustainable solution.
“We started this project in 2017. It was started to generate funding for [refugee] families, because we thought they could do something to earn a living,” Cyprian said. “For me [earning a living] was not a problem; I worked for Asylum Access. But I wanted to help other families.”
Though the United Nations announced #StepWithRefugees as the official theme of this year’s World Refugee Day – a call for solidarity with refugee populations – the more than 100,000 refugees scattered in camps and in cities around the country remain largely invisible in the eyes of both authorities and society.
Technically, there are no refugees in Thailand because the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Nobody who has fled to Thailand due to political persecution enjoys a formal legal status, meaning they are at risk of being considered as stateless people or illegal immigrants by the authorities.
Living in the margins and out of sight, refugees may avoid the risk of deportation, but at the cost of limited access to healthcare, work, and education. Refugees wait an indefinite period of time after they have submitted their asylum applications to the UNHCR for another country to accept them under resettlement.
Speaking in a panel discussion, a young Vietnamese refugee, who used an alias of “Ms. S,” shared her experience of precarity. Like Cyprian, Ms. S is a member of a persecuted religious minority group in Vietnam. After fleeing her homeland three years ago overland through Cambodia, she now lives in a condominium packed with nine to ten people, sharing one toilet and no private bedroom.
“I want Thai people to understand that we are not coming here particularly for work. We come here because there’s a lot going on in our country,” Ms. S added.
Ms. S is currently waiting for her asylum application to be processed, a waiting period during which she can do is little but learn languages online.
“I don’t even dare to dream,” the 20-year-old said. “In my situation, it’s very hard to even think about dreams. However, I want to improve my English and become a better interpreter for my community.”
Cyprian and his family are among the lucky ones to have had their asylum applications processed after five years of waiting in Bangkok. They will resettle in Canada by next year, but the clock is ticking for other refugees in Thailand. Every minute means a chance of them being caught and sent to the notorious immigration detention centers.
Still living in uncertainty hasn’t deterred refugees from building and participating in initiatives and small businesses to sustain their livelihoods during the wait.
Starting from the ground up without help from any NGO, Cyprian is now focused on finding new channels to distribute the products. He is in contact with local resellers, even though he has to be careful about “going big” when many refugees prefer to keep a low profile.
Another vendor at the fair, CHAMALiiN, similarly aims to provide safe and sustainable employment opportunities for vulnerable women. CHAMALiiN sells accessories and t-shirts online that are both inspired by Mhong motifs and created by Mhong refugees themselves.
CHAMALiiN is particularly proud of the two-way creative process that takes place behind the scenes between refugees and the brand.
“Sometimes the women come up with a design and then we support them with different fabrics and ways of selling it,” said Matilda Herben, a representative of the organization. “Sometimes we might come up with a generalized idea like a laptop bag and then they put it together for us.”
The “World Refugee Day” fair was held at Bangkok 1899 on Nakhon Sawan Road. The event was held on June 23. The event was organized by Amnesty International Thailand, Asylum Access Thailand, CHAMALiiN, People Serving People Foundation, and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.