Our office in Thailand looks like a private townhouse, an attached brick-and-plaster building with a gated driveway. A small sign on the gate reads “Asylum Access Thailand”.
“We had to put the sign up because refugees were afraid to go to a house with no sign. They were afraid it was a trap.” Arrests by immigration police are common in Bangkok, even for refugees who have been recognized by the United Nations. If a refugee goes into immigration detention, she may never come out.
At the same time, the sign makes Asylum Access more vulnerable. Immigration raids of refugee-serving organizations are common. The sign tells immigration police exactly where we are: Near the end of a dead-end street, with fences on three sides. If we get raided, our clients have no way out.
A few days after I arrived in Thailand, the office held a community legal education session for Sri Lankan asylum-seekers. “Why can’t the UN protect us from immigration police?” the refugees asked. “They’re responsible for human rights, they should do something.” The refugees made similar demands of Asylum Access: “Can’t you tell the government to stop arresting us?”
Refugees’ frustration levels are high — and understandably so. In Thailand, as in many other countries, refugees’ fundamental human rights are honored primarily in the breach. Even the UN can’t force the government to respect refugee rights. Often the best advice we can give our clients is to seek UN refugee status and then remain in hiding until they can be resettled — often years. Some clients are never resettled at all.
In the face of such challenges, I was struck by the commitment, positive attitude and determination of our staff on the front lines – mostly volunteer lawyers who pay their own way to work full-time for 6 months advising clients with heartrending stories in a highly-discouraging environment.
Published Nov 2010