Saudi asylum case prods Thais towards reform of tough refugee policy

BANGKOK (AFP) – On a television set in a grim, overcrowded Bangkok detention centre refugees closely followed Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s quest for resettlement, as the 18-year-old asylum-seeker’s case spurred hopes of a major policy turn from Thailand – a country that does not recognise refugees.

Qunun fled her family to Bangkok, barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and staved off deportation with her Twitter feed, ultimately gaining refuge in Canada on January 12.

Thai authorities were initially caught flat-footed by the young Saudi’s bold social media campaign.

But in the days since they have promised to address some of the lingering issues of indefinite detention and deportation of asylum seekers.

Yesterday Thai authorities signed an MoU to end the detention of all child refugees and asylum seekers. It was welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a “positive example” of the kingdom’s increasingly humane approach to the issue.

Shamim, a Pakistani-Christian asylum seeker, holds her passport in their apartment in Bangkok while her husband Nazir remains detained at Thailand’s Immigration Detention Centre. – AFP

Rights groups have for years condemned Thailand, which is not a signatory to the UN’s convention protecting refugees, for its hostility to asylum seekers – often trapping them on a carousel between detention and work in the black economy.

An estimated 900 adults remain in grubby Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) hoping to be resettled like Qunun but fearing an endless extension to their months, or years, of limbo.

Nazir, a Pakistani-Christian in Bangkok’s biggest IDC, said he watched Qunun’s case unfold on the news, discussing the twists and turns with his wife over the phone.

He shook his head in amazement at the “days” it took for Qunun’s refugee status to be determined by the UNHCR before Canada stepped in with the asylum offer, while he has been locked up for several months.

“My wife is alone with my daughter outside.. they are very sad,” Nazir, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, told AFP.

Despite its hardline to asylum seekers, Thailand’s lax visa rules, multiple entry points and graft-prone officials have made it an easy staging-post for those escaping conflict, persecution and poverty.