BANGKOK — From his hideout in northern Bangkok, James could hear roars of jet planes taking off from Don Mueang Airport. They gave him hope. He counted down the days until he could finally board one of them, away to safety and a new home.
James, a 20-year-old Vietnamese Hmong has been counting the days since his family fled religious persecution from Vietnam nearly a decade ago. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, shutting down borders across the world, the planes trickled to a stop – and so did his hope.
He’s one of an estimated 5,000 “urban refugees” scattered throughout the capital who are waiting for the United Nations to find them a new home in a third country. But the resettlement process, which can take up to 10 years, is now entirely suspended as the pandemic throws the world into chaos.
“The coronavirus made things worse,” said James, who asked Khaosod English not to disclose his real name due to his precarious status under Thai law. “The resettlement was nearly granted for my family, but it was put off indefinitely by the pandemic.”
Until this limbo ends, James and many other refugees will carry on living in the shadows. Thai authorities are known for arresting asylum seekers and even deporting them back to the countries they fled, even as a number of security officers continue to profit from the smuggling operations that brought in some of those refugees in the first place.
“Security officials definitely know about it,” Siyeed Alam, chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand, told Khaosod English. “Some of the refugees just simply walked through the border checkpoints.”
None of the experts interviewed for this story were able to establish the exact figure of how many refugees and asylum seekers entered Thailand over the past year, but a report by UNHCR said up to 95,000 refugees are believed to be residing along Thailand’s border towns and camps, mostly from Myanmar.
Another 5,000 to 6,000 are what NGOs term “urban refugees,” or fugitives driven from their home in Vietnam, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Africa due to persecution and bloody civil strife. Many of them are believed to be hiding in low-rent apartments across Bangkok’s residential areas.
Health and Humanitarian Crisis
The coronavirus not only disrupted international travel as governments around the world shut down their borders and cancelled flights, but domestic travel in Thailand is also affected.
Residents in five provinces of Samut Sakhon, Chonburi, Rayong, Trat, and Chanthaburi were barred from visiting other parts of the country unless they have a permit – an obstacle for asylum seekers residing in those areas who had interview appointments with the U.N. refugee office in Bangkok – a crucial process to determine their eligibility for resettlement.
The mandate to ensure social distancing also means an even larger backlog of interviews, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said in an emailed statement.
“UNHCR in Thailand has been required to reduce its registration and case processing activities in line with WHO advisories to maintain social distancing,” the U.N. refugee agency said.
“While there are severe disruptions in general for international travel and in processing timelines, there’s currently no indication that resettlement programs will be cancelled by resettlement countries.”
That reassurance would hardly comfort the refugees waiting under a cloud of uncertainty. The UNHCR did not say how many cases were successfully relocated from Thailand to third countries over the past year, though the latest available U.N. data shows worldwide resettlement in 2020 fell 68 percent from 2019 levels, from 63,726 to 20,364.
The fall was reflected in the level of refugee intake among receiving countries. The United States, which so far resettles the world’s largest share of refugees, only admitted 11,814 refugees in 2020, compared with 30,000 the year before, according to data from the U.S.-based Migration Policy Institute.
A director of an organization that provides support to refugees in Thailand said only two people under her oversight found new homes in another country last year.
“Everything came into a halt,” Naiyana Thanawattho, who runs Asylum Access Thailand, said in an interview. She added that her organization did not take in any new asylum seeker cases in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We didn’t receive any new arrivals, since most urban refugees would fly into Thailand, but they can’t do that now because of travel restrictions.”
Politics also played a role. Puttanee Kangkun, a senior researcher for human rights group Fortify Rights, attributed the drop in the number of refugee intakes to the hardening attitudes toward refugees in countries that might have been more welcoming in the past.
“It’s not only COVID-19 to be blamed, but also the number of quotas in the receiving countries,” Puttanee said. “This is due to a number of factors such as the demands for migration intake and anti-immigration sentiment in many countries.”
From Shadows to Shadows
There are about 300,000 Hmong Christians in Vietnam’s northwestern region, an ethnic minority group that civil rights organizations said often came under assault for their religious beliefs.
In 2018, an activist group said 24 Hmong Christians were attacked by a mob in an attempt to make them renounce their faith. The violence followed warnings from local authorities that they would be expelled from their community if they refused to abandon their religion, according to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.
The Hmong are also at the bottom of Vietnam’s ethnic hierarchy, with the highest poverty levels and lowest education levels, The Diplomat reported.
James is one of many Hmong Christians who chose to leave in search for a better life. His journey started in 2011, when he was 11 years old. His father told him that the family could not stay in the village any longer due to threats of punishment from the Vietnamese authorities.
So the family of eight packed up, and fled overland to Thailand. Although they found themselves in a land where religious intolerance is almost unheard of, they had yet to fully taste their freedom.
Since Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers are considered as illegal immigrants by the Thai authorities, subject to arrests, imprisonment in a notoriously overcrowded jail, and deportation back to the countries they tried to escape.
“I can’t go anywhere,” James said. “I used to only watch out for cops, but now I must be careful about COVID-19 as well. If I or any member of my family got sick, we can’t really go to hospitals since we have no money or identification documents.”
Such arrests are well documented, even in cases where the UNHCR already started the process for their resettlements. In August 2018, police arrested a group of 168 asylum seekers from Cambodian and Vietnam, including 154 people who held I.D. cards issued by the UNHCR, while the other 14 were waiting for an official document from the U.N. agency.
A similar crackdown in October that year saw the arrests of more than 100 refugees, including Syrians and Somalis who fled the unrest in their homelands. An NGO said all of them were being processed by the UNHCR for their refugee status.
Again in May 2019, the police arrested two dissidents from mainland China, one of whom was recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR.
A number of asylum seekers were also imprisoned in the Immigration Detention Center, or IDC, as they awaited the process to resettle their homes, which could typically take years.
No Money and No Future
James recalled that it was “a bit of struggle” when they first arrived in Bangkok, but they were soon able to settle down and find some income to support themselves with the help of local NGOs.
Grown-ups would take up part-time jobs such as construction for men and sewing for women, while children would go to a local primary school.
However, as Thailand grapples with the pandemic, such arrangements are now in disarray. Only James, who works as an interpreter for an NGO, and several siblings who take up sewing jobs, can earn some income for the family.
“Many of us were fired from jobs since the employers became afraid of crackdown on undocumented workers,” James said. “We used to make around 15,000 baht a month, but now we could only find 6,000 to 7,000 baht. The rent alone is 8,000 baht.”
“But luckily, our landlord is kind enough to postpone rent payments for us.”
According to a survey of asylum seekers in Bangkok conducted by Asylum Access Thailand in May, 85 percent of the participants said they lost their jobs after the pandemic struck.
Asylum Access Thailand director Naiyana said almost half of the participants said they have to borrow money from friends and relatives, or ask for donations from NGOs.
“Many of them were employed at markets, but now many markets are closed,” Naiyana said. “Schools were also moved online, but I don’t believe that asylum seekers would have appropriate tools to attend class. Beyond that, fears against migrant workers also exacerbate the problem.”
Filmmaker-turned-activist Sakda Kaewbuadee said some of the refugees he’s assisting have to survive by eating only bananas or skipping meals every other day.
“It’s really a difficult time for them,” said Sakda, who worked independently to help make appeals to foreign embassies on behalf of asylum seekers. “A Pakistani who I worked with only made 6,000 baht a month, and half of it goes towards the rent.”
The helping hands are strained as well. Naiyana said the pandemic posed new challenges for NGOs, who have to adopt new ways of providing support to asylum seekers.
“We can’t conduct fieldwork at the moment due to risk of infection,” Naiyana said. “We have to rely on phone calls and online meetings, which are less convenient than face-to-face meetings.”
Old Problem in New Normal
Security was tightened along Thailand-Myanmar borders in December after the second wave of coronavirus outbreak was identified at a fish market where many migrant workers from Myanmar were employed. Government leaders quickly blamed Myanmar migrants for “bringing in” the disease, though the facts remain unclear to this day.
Caught in the crackdown on illegal border crossing is a tide of Rohingya refugees fleeing what the United Nations described as an orgy of “ethnic cleansing” in western Myanmar.
Security forces erected barriers and conducted more patrols along the country’s porous border with Myanmar. But they still failed to deter the influx of Rohingya refugees, as well as undocumented workers, who have been crossing the border for decades before the pandemic.
“They can’t be stopped,” said Siyeed Alam, the chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand, whose organization provides assistance to the ethnic minority group.
“The situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is really terrible right now. The pandemic aggravates the already dire situation for Rohingya, who now have to flee from both the violence and the disease.”
Rohingyas who want to escape the ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar have two options. They can either brave dangerous sea voyages across the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh, or take overland journeys across Thailand to Malaysia.
The latter is somewhat safer, but they still risk arrests and detention by the Thai security forces. Earlier this month, 18 Rohingyas were arrested in Bangkok’s Don Mueang district while they were waiting for their smugglers to transport them to the Thai-Malaysian border.
Police said seven of them tested positive for COVID-19 and are being treated, while the rest are being held in quarantine.
Seven months earlier, in May 2020, security officials apprehended 12 Rohingya at a house in the border town of Mae Sot. They were later deported back to Myanmar – a fate dreaded by many Rohingyas.
Immigration spokesman Archayon Kraithong said police continue to make arrests of foreign nationals who entered the country illegally throughout the course of the pandemic. A statement from the immigration bureau said “800” people were arrested for illegal entry in the first week of January alone.
But Siyeed from the Rohingya association said the government’s much publicized pledge to crack down on smuggling rings is hypocritical at best, since many members of the security force actually benefit from the operations.
Siyeed said the refugees had to pay approximately 170,000 baht per person for the overland trip bound for Malaysia. Shares of the proceeds were paid to brokers and law enforcement agencies along the way across the three countries, he said.
“Brokers would just bribe officials in exchange for access,” Siyeed said. “There’s no other way for Rohingya since they’re stateless people. A better livelihood awaits them in Malaysia.”
Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan says he’s ordered military to tighten control of the borders amid virus pandemic. He also denies reports that some security officers are complicit in smuggling migrant workers into Thailand. “There isn’t any,” Gen. Prawit said. #Thailand #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/Mx9Lu35iFE
— Khaosod English (@KhaosodEnglish) December 22, 2020
In late December, police said five policemen in Kanchanaburi, which borders Myanmar, were put under investigation on the suspicions that they colluded with local smugglers, who reportedly charged each migrant worker 15,000 baht for transit into Thailand.
“As long as there are push factors, they will not stop,” Puttanee from Fortify Rights said of the human rights situation in Myanmar. “The plight they are in is more powerful than the virus.”
James, the refugee from Vietnam, said he hopes to wait out the storm in his hideout in Bangkok.
“That’s how life goes for refugees,” he said. “We never know what tomorrow brings.”