f. Protection of Refugees
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of November, 271 Rohingya individuals remained in detention, 108 in IDCs and 163 in shelters. From 2013-2015, including during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015, 64 individuals arrived in the country irregularly. The other 207 individuals arrived in the country irregularly since 2016.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived in urban areas and who do not have valid visas as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Authorities permitted bail only for certain categories of detained refugees and asylum seekers, such as mothers, children, and persons with medical conditions. Authorities applied the criteria for allowing bail inconsistently.
Humanitarian organizations reported concerns that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers faced overcrowded conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, limited freedom of movement, and abusive treatment by authorities in the immigration detention centers (IDCs).
As part of an overall policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. As of August there were approximately 320 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs, and 49 Uighurs have been detained in the country since 2015.
Refoulement: Persons from Burma, if arrested without refugee status or legal permission to be in the country, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities sometimes provided preferential treatment to certain Burmese ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Shan individuals, allowing them greater leeway to remain in Thailand without formal authorization. Outside IDCs, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. If caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. One Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern, however, was forcibly returned to Cambodia in February. Human rights NGOs alleged that in January, Thai authorities collaborated with Vietnamese security officials to return forcibly to Vietnam blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who had publicly expressed a desire to register with UNHCR.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government did not establish a system for providing protection to refugees. On December 25, the government published a new regulation (referred to as the “National Screening Mechanism” by UNHCR and NGOs) that provides individuals whom the government determines to be protected persons with temporary protection from deportation, access to health care, and access (for children) to education. The regulation does not provide for work permits to protected persons. The regulation will go into effect 180 days from the publication date.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the IDCs to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. Authorities generally allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance. Access varied, reportedly depending on the preferences of each IDC chief. Authorities at IDC Suan Phlu in Bangkok, for example, restricted access by UNHCR, IOM, and other NGOs during the second half of the year, claiming a need to expand health facilities.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of, and pursue solutions for, approximately 95,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement to five countries for more than 2,200 Burmese refugees from the camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement unless they were included in a 2015 verification process or had serious medical or protection concerns. Separately, the government coordinated with Burmese authorities to document and return to Burma registered camp residents who elected to participate in a voluntary repatriation program. As of August, 1,039 registered refugees had voluntarily returned to Burma in four tranches under the program since 2016.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement outside of their camps. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation. Authorities sometimes allowed camp residents limited travel outside of the camps for activities such as medical care.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during their trial and up to two years (with possible extensions) after the end of their trial involvement. Work permits must be linked to a specific employer. For certain victims of trafficking, including Rohingya, identifying suitable employment opportunities for the issuance of work permits remained a challenge. Registration, medical check-up, and health-insurance fees remained a deterrent for prospective employers of victims of trafficking.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban-refugee and asylum-seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Three NGOs funded in part by the international community provided or facilitated primary and mental health-care services. A UNHCR-led health panel coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to support camp-based community organizations to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to partially coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own unofficial schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government continued to protect from deportation the majority of Rohingya migrants detained by authorities, including those who arrived in the country irregularly during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015. During the year, authorities also placed more than 200 Rohingya detained while transiting Thailand into Ministry of Social Development and Human Security-run shelters and protected them from deportation. UNHCR had access to these provincial shelters while authorities conducted formal screenings of the migrants’ eligibility for benefits as victims of trafficking. These Rohingya migrants, however, were in most cases confined to shelters and did not have freedom of movement or access to work permits.