Thailand signals more tolerant refugee policy

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand’s immigration chief vowed on Wednesday not to force refugees to return home “involuntarily”, after a Saudi woman’s desperate plea for resettlement drew global attention to a country that does not recognise asylum seekers.

The country is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees and has long come under fire for holding them in detention centres or deporting them back to repressive regimes where they face prison or worse.

Many cases do not make headlines but that changed earlier this month when 18-year-old Saudi runaway Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok and staved off deportation by barricading herself in a hotel at the airport, live-tweeting the standoff to an international audience. She was handed over to the UN refugee agency within days and resettled to Canada within a week, where she was welcomed by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland after landing in Toronto last Saturday.

Qunun said she refused to see family members who came to Thailand after her flight.

The lightning-fast processing of her case was unprecedented for Thailand and was overseen almost from start to finish by Immigration Chief Surachate Hakparn, a blunt-talking media-savvy official nicknamed ‘Big Joke’ who was recently appointed to the role and vowed reforms.

Responding to questions about Thailand’s treatment of refugees, Surachate told an audience at the foreign correspondents’ club he would take a new approach and that under his supervision “there will be no one involuntarily sent back to the country if they don’t want to go back”.