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Thailand, and Refugees
to and through Thailand

Speech by Surat Horachaikol

       Asst. Professor, Dept. of Intn'l Relations
         Faculty of Political Science
         Chulalongkon University, Bangkok, Thailand

We all have heard how different nationals have sought to use Thailand for destination and/or a formal route to 'third' countries.

For a few decades until now, Thailand has dealt with refugees coming to Thailand in different ways. From the 'Cambodian refugee crisis' in 1979 until now, Thailand has used several measures in dealing with different nationals fleeing to and through Thailand both formally and informally.

Today, this issue has become much more complex than ever. On one hand, it is of moral obligation that the country needs to help those fleeing from totalitarian regimes.

On the other hand, apart from national security and 'national sentiment' reason much politicized through the Burmese illegal immigrant issue, the country is being forced to rethink the issue in the context of human racketeering.

Additionally, the high level authorities are seriously thinking how Thailand is becoming a safe haven for refugees. According to an immigration officer working in Mae Sod area (of Tak Province), "there is no such an end of coming of these refugees."

Many also see that being a safe haven would harm the international tie between Thailand and the countries of origin where people are fleeing from. Thailand has diplomatic ties with almost every country including the totalitarian regime like the Burma and North Korea.

Some officials and scholars fear that if Thailand provides safe haven for people fleeing these totalitarian regimes, then Thailand will be helping these regimes in getting rid of people the regimes no longer want. This may sound as an excuse, but it is necessarily true in the case of the Hmongs from Laos and the Rohingyas from Arakan (Burma) mostly coming through Bangladesh. Laos and Burma had refused to take these people back.

In some cases, raising their own national procedures like checking and rechecking to confirm individual citizenship before receiving them back "became a bitter experience for us [Thailand], and we need to be tough with 'immigrants' so that these countries don't take advantage from us", said a Thai senior official.

We must also admit that Thai officials have turned blind eyes and let certain people stay in Thailand, fearing that these certain people when sent back may be killed or tortured.

This generalized perception toward refugees is one of the main problems concerning Thailand's treatments of illegal immigrants. Often, one working in the field can see that there is no proper national official policy toward people illegally entering the country.

What is proper and clear for the officers to deal with people fleeing from other countries is that they are to be treated as illegal immigrants not refugees or victims of human trafficking as such.

But again this is not to generalize and forget that there are camps of refugees who are waiting to go to 'third' countries and there are cases where victims of human trafficking were treated as victims.

In legal consideration, the broad standard of practices for Thai officials is very much the same but the details of practices may vary from time to time and place to place. Importantly, when officials could not argue with NGOs concerning their treatment of refugees, then the reason of national security overrules everything else.

What's more, the lack of 'checks and balances' or practices in accordance with good governance had, as some claim, allowed the authorities to mistreat and abuse the victims.

The accusation on certain officials has been increasingly heard especially in the case of Burmese and also of Russian and Uzbekistan women working as prostitutes in Bangkok.

The only recommendation is that UN, NGOs and other countries including the 'third' countries and others at stake should urgently do a consultation with Thailand for a reform so that Thailand will have an internationally accepted standard and at the same time will benefit the welfare of the refugees.

Here the consultation must be holistic in nature so that it leads to a clear categorization of cases. A Bangladeshi who illegally entered the country for the sake of economic reason will be categorized differently from a North Korean fleeing from the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Il. The categorization will lead to the clear standard of practice.

Currently, the detention center is not only terrible but also totally inappropriate for many victims. What one can also expect from the consultation is the standard and quality of officers dealing with refugees. There are certain qualities that are seriously wanting in these officers. Above all, officers working in this field must be the ones who cherish human rights.

The training of officers or perhaps a change from immigration department to Ministry of Human Security to handle the issue would be a better start. All of the change will not come easily because this is a highly sensitive issue. Thailand must see that it is benefiting from it without harming its national security.

Thailand must not be the only country being held financially responsible either. The overall economic status of the country does not permit it to do so either. If Thailand is increasingly pushed to be financially responsible, then there is a high proclivity that the issue will provoke anger among Thai public who could claim that their government neglect to look after them and instead protect the other nationals.

The consultation can lead to good governance practices and reduce the malpractices and abuses.

For the time being, South Korea must take the initiative if it sees North Korean refugees as Koreans or South Koreans. The formal agreement may not be easy for two principle reasons.

First, the agreement would jeopardize the (un)desirable relations between Thailand and North Korea. Having a formal agreement on the issue could mean, in the eyes of North Korea, Thailand is colluding with South Korea. Second, the formal agreement is infeasible as it would contradict the national law and it is perhaps undesirable as it will go against the standardization that we all long for.

The agreement in the short run could be in the format MOU between Thailand and South Korea in the context of protecting human rights of the refugees in accordance with international standard with respect to applying for citizenship or asylum seekers in 'third' countries.