Asylum Access Thailand: Then and Now

Published May 2012

An interview with former Associate Launch Director Vivienne Chew.

Five years after she left Asylum Access Thailand (AAT), Associate Launch Director Vivienne Chew visited our office in Bangkok to say hello and learn more about our growing work with the local refugee community. Here are some of her impressions and thoughts on how AAT has evolved since then.

Firstly, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. You recently visited our office in Thailand 3 years after you were AAT’s Associate Launch Director. How did the visit go?

Vivienne: It was really wonderful to be there in December 2011. Being back on Soi Intamara 35 brought back a lot of great memories. I was really impressed to see how much the organization has grown and matured into a well-respected and effective refugee legal aid organization. Although it was a very short visit, Medhapan, Michael and I were able to spend some time discussing the changes at AAT, and the protection space in Thailand for urban refugees. One thing that struck me was how warm and welcoming the current office is; AAT moved into new premises in November 2010, and it was evident that a lot of effort had gone into creating an environment where clients would feel comfortable and secure.

Do you think a lot has changed for AAT and refugee rights in Thailand?

The most obvious change is the presence of more Thai staff. When we started AAT, it became clear very early on that the organization would be most successful under strong and experienced Thai leadership and staff, which would be essential to establishing relationships with other organizations and local government authorities in Thailand. Recent achievements have only proved us right.

AAT is now engaged in national and regional policy advocacy work; something that was near impossible before AAT formalized its operations under the auspices of the Thai Human Rights and Development Foundation, a highly-respected Thai human rights NGO. Based on my short trip and discussions with AAT staff, it seems there have been a number of key improvements to the local protection environment. For example, the release of a number of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons from immigration detention is a huge achievement. However, far too many things remain relatively unchanged. There is still no legal framework to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, no right to employment and limited access to basic services. And unfortunately, refugees still live in fear of arrest and detention.

AAT is now advocating to end refugee detention, including urging the government to explore detention alternatives. What were AAT’s priorities when you were Associate Launch Director in 2007-2008? And why?

In AAT’s first year of operations, our priorities were to build relationships with the refugee communities, government institutions and civil society groups in Bangkok, and of course, UNHCR. We spent a great deal of time reaching out to other key stakeholders to explore different ways to formalize a long-term presence in Thailand. At the same time, there was a clear need for legal aid in Bangkok and our client base grew very rapidly; the challenge was to meet this great demand for legal services.

I should also say that detention issues were always a significant concern for AAT, although our ability to advocate on this issue was limited by our lack of legal registration and lack of access to detention centers. In 2009 and 2010, a number of our clients were arrested and subsequently detained while their cases were still pending before UNHCR. So it’s very heartening to know that AAT has been able to make progress on this since.

We were fortunate that Launch Director Sanjula Weerasinghe had previously worked with the Bangkok Refugee Centre, a Thai nonprofit organization providing a range of basic services for refugees. She had a prior relationship with UNHCR and knew the urban refugee environment well. As a result, we were very well received by the refugee community and our client base grew very rapidly. We had a lot of support from the Bangkok Refugee Centre and built good working relationships with other organizations in Bangkok. We were also invited to attend monthly urban refugee meetings hosted by UNHCR, which helped to develop our relationship with them. Of course, it is always challenging to start a refugee legal aid project in a country where the protection space for refugees and asylum seekers is so limited, but I think the support we received from the refugee community made a huge difference.

Asylum Access
Vivienne (far left) with Asylum Access colleagues at the United Nations Annual Consultations for NGOs in Geneva.

What are your best memories from your time with AAT?

Finding out that clients had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and in some cases, had been resettled to a third country. Those were definitely the best moments from my time at AAT – when you find out that all the hard work and perseverance from yourself and especially your client, has finally paid off. And although every client is extremely important, there are some exceptional cases you really pour your heart and soul into. Being able to work with those individuals and families is a life-changing experience that I will never forget.

What have you been up to since you left Asylum Access?

I left Thailand for Tanzania where I was Launch Director for our third office. I was in Tanzania from March to November 2010, working to register AATZ as a legal entity and set up legal aid operations in refugee camps in Western Tanzania. In December 2010, I moved to Denver, Colorado where I received a partial scholarship for a Masters in Human Rights at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. And I am currently back in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I am drafting Malaysia’s first Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as a project consultant for the Malaysian Child Resource Institute (MCRI).

I am also actively engaged with the refugee community in Kuala Lumpur, both through my work with MCRI and a research project on the prevalence of gender-based violence against refugee men. I am also involved in coordinating Malaysian civil society’s involvement in the global campaign to end the immigration detention of children.