Thailand: Between a rock and a hard place [EN/TH/ZH]
Thailand’s refugee policies and violations of the principle of non-refoulement
On the evening of 26 May 2017, Muhammet Furkan Sökmen, a Turkish national, recorded a video in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. In the video, subsequently sent to diplomats and human rights organizations, Sökmen stated:
If I go to Turkey, I am to be imprisoned and most probably [will] be tortured like many others tortured under the current regime. I am an innocent person and committed no crime… I don’t want to go to Turkey. I don’t want to be imprisoned. I don’t want to be tortured. I have committed no crime. I am asking for international protection and I would like the global community to answer my innocent call. Thank you very much for your help.
Later that evening, Thai authorities handed Sökmen – an educational professional swept up in the Turkish government’s merciless crackdown on perceived political opponents – over to Turkish officials. He was handcuffed, tape was placed over his mouth, and he was forced onto a plane to Istanbul.
Sökmen’s forcible return to Turkey is the latest in a series of similar events that have occurred since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took power in a 22 May 2014 military coup in Thailand. However, the NCPO is not alone in perpetrating callous actions of this nature. Rather, the NCPO’s policies demonstrate continuity with those of prior administrations, which have too often failed to uphold Thailand’s international obligations to those seeking protection from persecution and violence in other countries. Under the NCPO, the Thai government has made welcome – although as yet unfulfilled – commitments to strengthening Thailand’s refugee policies. By following through on these commitments, the NCPO could reverse a decades-long pattern of rights violations and provide the next government with a strong legal and policy framework that adequately protects refugees and asylum-seekers.
This report describes the shortcomings of Thailand’s policies towards refugees and asylum-seekers as well as its violations of the principle of non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement obliges states not to return anyone to a territory where they would be at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. It is the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime and is fundamental to the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The report draws on testimonies and information from interviews and focus groups discussions with refugees, asylum-seekers and their family members; meetings with NGO representatives, diplomats, UN officials and others; extensive desk research; and prior investigations carried out by Amnesty International researchers in other countries around the world.
For decades, Thailand has welcomed individuals fleeing violence and persecution in neighbouring countries. From the mid-1970s to the end of the last decade, Thailand hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Armed conflict and grave human rights abuses in eastern Myanmar have also pushed tens of thousands of villagers across the border into Thailand. The Thai government has developed and implemented policies to accommodate these populations for extended periods of time, and Thai authorities have regularly been involved in the provision of humanitarian support to individuals arriving on Thai soil. Approximately 100,000 Myanmar nationals currently reside in refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
In addition to sheltering refugees from its war-torn neighbours, Thailand has also hosted thousands of people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in more distant locations. More than 7,000 internationally-recognized refugees and asylum-seekers from approximately 50 countries currently reside in Bangkok and other urban or semi-urban areas in Thailand.
Notwithstanding Thailand’s significant contribution to addressing regional and global refugee crises, there have been many dark periods in Thailand’s relationship with refugees. In 1979, Thai soldiers forced approximately 42,000 Cambodian refugees across the Thailand-Cambodia border at gunpoint, through an active minefield, and into the hands of Vietnamese soldiers. In the decades that followed, Thai authorities repelled Vietnamese asylum-seekers arriving by boat and forcibly repatriated thousands of Lao Hmong refugees. Forcible returns have at times also occurred along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Upon taking power, the NCPO inherited this mixed legacy in relation to refugees. It also inherited a legal and policy framework that inadequately protects the rights of refugees.
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) or its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, Thai law provides no formal legal status to refugees or asylum-seekers. The 1979 Immigration Act – the primary law defining refugees’ relationship to the Thai state – does not distinguish between refugees and other foreigners. All are subject to arrest, detention and deportation for failure to comply with its provisions. Refugees’ lack of legal status underlies the wide array of hardships and risks they face in Thailand.
The absence of a domestic legal framework for refugee protection leaves Thailand without the means to independently resolve the situation of refugees in the country. Thailand therefore allows the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct refugee status determination for urban refugees in order to open the door for their possible resettlement in third countries. However, this process is slow and uncertain, exposing refugees to prolonged periods of residence in Thailand with no formal legal protections.
The lack of formal legal status and safeguards for refugees has facilitated repeated and grave violations of the principle of non-refoulement by Thai authorities. Broadly, refoulement violations documented by Amnesty International fall into three categories.
First, the Thai government has forcibly returned individuals to situations where they are likely to face persecution or serious human rights violations based on the request of foreign governments. Amnesty International collected evidence regarding the following forcible returns:
The December 2014 forcible return of Bahraini youth activist Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon to Bahrain, where he had previously been jailed and tortured. Haroon was reportedly physically abused during his return flight, and his family told Amnesty International that he has been tortured since arriving back in Bahrain, where he remains imprisoned.
The July 2015 forcible return of 109 Uighur asylum-seekers to China, where they are likely to have faced severe persecution and possibly torture. Chinese security officers forced these individuals onto a plane in Bangkok with black hoods over their heads. Little is known about their current whereabouts or condition.
The November 2015 forcible return of Chinese activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping to China, where they have been detained and await trial. These men were forcibly returned despite the knowledge of Thai authorities that they were UNHCR-registered refugees scheduled for resettlement in Canada.
The May 2017 forcible return of Muhammet Furkan Sökmen to Turkey, where he has subsequently been imprisoned alongside thousands of other perceived political opponents. Sökmen was detained by Thai authorities in a Bangkok airport for approximately 24 hours after being expelled by Myanmar based on an extradition request from the Turkish government.
In relation to each of the above cases, UN officials warned Thai authorities about the risk of torture or other human rights abuses if these individuals were returned to the custody of the requesting government.
Second, the current Thai government has turned back from its borders refugees arriving by sea and air, often in a manner which demonstrates utmost disregard for the human rights of those individuals. In 2015, Thai authorities pushed back to sea ships carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh despite knowledge of the dire humanitarian situation on board the ships, implementing a policy first employed by previous Thai governments. A young Rohingya woman told Amnesty International that the Thai navy prevented her ship from landing in 2015 after it was abandoned by the crew of human traffickers. She described her feelings at that moment:
We decided that we would die, because we didn’t have anything in the boat. We were praying and we were ready for our funeral services… We asked, “Why are we not able to go to Thailand, if the captain will go there?” We were worried and we prayed. We only knew that we would die. The choice was death or life.
UNHCR has also reported that refugees have frequently been denied entry at Thailand’s airports in recent years.
Finally, the Thai government, by failing to provide formal protections and rights to refugees and asylum-seekers, has facilitated the “constructive refoulement” of refugees who have chosen to return to their home countries because their lives in Thailand had become untenable. Urban refugees in Thailand face many difficulties associated with their lack of domestic legal status, including limited employment prospects, trouble accessing medical care and educational opportunities, financial stresses, severe restrictions on movement and social interactions, and the constant fear of arrest. In early 2016, “Joseph”, a Pakistani Christian refugee, and his family abandoned their asylum claim two years after arriving in Thailand because of severe hardships and delays in UNHCR’s refugee status determination process. He told Amnesty International:
We were without money. We didn’t have anything to eat at that time. It was the same time that the Thai police were raiding [refugee communities] all over Bangkok. We were having all those problems together at the same time. We were hungry and we were also trying to hide from the police. We didn’t have food continuously for four or five days… [W]hen we think of those things, we become very sad.
After returning to Pakistan, one family member was abducted, forced to convert to Islam, and forcibly married to a Muslim man. The family’s home was also burned, killing Joseph’s father.
Refugees who are arrested in Thailand face prolonged and indefinite detention in appalling conditions at immigration detention centers (IDCs). Formerly detained refugees described horrific sanitation conditions, inadequate medical care and cells so cramped that detainees had to sleep in shifts. Many UNHCR-recognized refugees and asylum-seekers have been detained for years, with no indication of when they might be released or resettled. Refugees in IDCs sometimes make the decision to “self-deport” by paying for a return ticket to their home countries, where they must face the dangers and hardships that caused them to seek protection abroad.
During the NCPO’s time in power, Thai officials have made several important commitments concerning the protection of refugees in Thailand. Since the forcible return of Chinese nationals on two occasions in 2015 – and the severe criticism from the international community that followed – Thai officials have signalled that they will avoid similar actions in the future and have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to the principle of non-refoulement. The Thai government has also committed to implementing new laws and policies to protect refugees and prevent violations of the principle of non-refoulement. Notably, on 10 January 2017, Thailand’s Cabinet passed a resolution authorizing the development of a system for screening refugees and irregular migrants. If implemented in a fair and non-discriminatory manner consistent with Thailand’s obligations under international law, the establishment of a national screening mechanism would be a major achievement for the NCPO in terms of advancing refugee rights.