BANGKOK — Thailand has been home to tens of thousands of refugees from around the world over the past 35 years. While recent focus is often on the grave refugee situations in Syria and Iraq, it is important to remember the conditions of refugees in Thailand as well. Here are five facts you may or may not have known about the situation for refugees in Thailand:
1. Thailand is one of the world’s largest refugee host countries.
More than 750,000 refugees from Somalia, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka and Cameroon have resided in Thai camps before being resettled in other countries. To date, nearly 500,000 refugees have been resettled, a third of whom are sent to the United States.
2. The majority of refugees in Thailand are Burmese.
There are 120,000 Burmese refugees residing in nine camps along the border; approximately 82,000 of these people were not officially registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as of June 2013.
3. The Royal Thai Government is NOT a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees or the 1967 Protocol.
Because the Royal Thai Government is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention, or its 1967 Protocol, they are able to be selective in the accommodations they provide to various refugee groups, favoring some, while not providing necessary resources to others.
Thailand stopped allowing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to register Burmese refugees in 2005, which means they cannot begin the process of resettlement. However, refugees from other countries, like Vietnam, Syria and Somalia, are still able to register upon arrival.
4. Labels matter: Refugee vs. Displaced Person vs. Illegal Migrant
In Thailand, refugees are considered ‘displaced persons’ — not ‘refugees.’ By not being party to the 1951 Convention, the government is able to avoid using the word ‘refugee,’ and instead can use terms like ‘displaced persons’ or ‘illegal migrants.’
When a population is labeled as refugees, there are certain international rights that are guaranteed as well as necessary accommodations that must be met. By avoiding the word ‘refugee’ the Thai government is able to circumnavigate the required resources and services that international law mandates for refugees.
5. Many refugees live outside of camps in Thailand
When refugees are not registered in United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee camps, they are considered to be illegal migrants by Thai authorities. This inhibits their ability to receive necessary aid, and thus many reside in urban areas (primarily Bangkok), where they try to find work illegally.
These groups include: Lao Hmong, the sea-bound Rohingya, Chinese Falun Gong, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.
– Andrea Blinkhorn
Sources: UNHCR 1, U.S. Department of Defense, UNHCR 2, UNHCR 3
Photo: RFA 15