Working Through the Floods in Thailand

An Interview with Asylum Access Thailand Legal Services Manager Michael Timmins

Following months of heavy rain, a third of Thailand has been inundated in what has been called the worst flood and natural disaster in Thailand in the last half a century. The waters reached the capital city of Bangkok in late October, where Asylum Access Thailand has its office, threatening to disrupt business as usual.

While it has been a challenge to work under these circumstances – staff have been forced to evacuate their homes, refugee clients needed to be interviewed urgently to file time-sensitive appeals, and on top of this, getting to our office became an obstacle course – Asylum Access Thailand has  managed to remain operational through this time.

Asylum Access Thailand Legal Services Manager Michael Timmins tells us how.

1. Tell us a bit about the situation in Bangkok and how the flood has impacted Asylum Access Thailand.

MT: The flood has been a terrible tragedy for Thailand.  Over 500 people have died, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and the economic impact will be severe and prolonged.  Our clients, as some of the most vulnerable people in Bangkok, have been severely impacted by this disaster.  In balancing the safety concerns of staff and clients, we have sought to continue to provide the best service possible in this environment.

A significant issue has been the limited, and often confusing, information provided by the authorities. I am grateful to our Thai staff, particularly Medhapan our Country Director, for the great job they have all done in trying to keep us and our clients up to date with the best information possible.

In terms of direct impact, some of our staff have had to evacuate because they live in areas that have been inundated.  For those of us that remain, it has been difficult to find food as the grocery stores are empty while the constant uncertainty of what will happen and for how long we’ll be affected is stressful for staff and clients alike.  Right now, the water is less than a quarter of a mile away from our office but, as yet, we are not having to wade through water to open the front door.

2. Given the scale of the flood, how has Asylum Access Thailand managed to stay operational?

MT: In late October with the flood coming towards our office, we decided to close.  The information was that if the water was coming you would only get 15 minutes warning and we simply did not want to risk the safety of our staff and clients.  Soon after that decision the Government announced a public holiday and suggested that those who could evacuate Bangkok should.

My main concern at this time was that we had a large number of pending appeals.  Appeals are the most intense part of our work – they are time sensitive (with firm filing deadlines) and are really the last chance that someone has of obtaining refugee status and access to protection.  Legally, they are extremely difficult with very narrow grounds of appeal available complicated by the lack of access to evidence on which UNHCR bases the rejection.  It’s hard to know how to challenge something when you don’t know why it was rejected in the first place!

The VLAs each had a number of appeals to work on and this we did remotely during the office closure by completing our legal research and collating the independent country human rights information to support the appeals.  We kept in touch via email and Skype.  It was far from ideal, but we were able to ensure that what we could complete, we did.

After a week or so, the information suggested that the water was now very slowly encroaching towards inner Bangkok and would not arrive as suddenly as earlier predicted.  We really needed to start interviewing these clients for their appeals, so we decided to re-open the office and to assess the situation on a day-by-day basis.  This remains the situation today.

With the majority of staff having evacuated, only myself and another VLA, Louise Collewet from France, were able to attend the office and conduct these interviews.  We had an extremely busy few days trying to interview as many people as possible.  Our Tamil interpreter was simply amazing – he must have been exhausted.  Our clients were very grateful; they could see that we were taking their appeals seriously despite the difficult circumstances, and had opened the office to ensure we could interview them.

We’ve also had a large number of “walk in” clients and telephone enquiries with various problems.  A lot of them reported that they had lost their housing and belongings.  We referred these people to groups who were trying to help, but, frankly, there is very little assistance available for the refugees in this situation.  For those that had legal problems, we were able to give them advice and provide a service, but there was a real sense of frustration that we could not resolve all of their problems.

There is one client in particular that I would like to mention.  He is from Pakistan.  A month ago, he and his family were at our office and were visibly distraught.  As with many of our clients, the reality of being a refugee in Bangkok was just too much for them and they were at their lowest ebb.  I provided some advice around how to speed up their resettlement, but they simply nodded and left the room with their shoulders slumped.  Hope was beyond them…

When this same client came to the office this past week he wanted to see me.  He told me that he had walked through waist-high (dirty) water to get to a bus which would take him to another bus so that he could make his way to the office.  Despite this, there was an energy about him, and a light in his eyes, noticeably absent at our last meeting.  I asked him how he was doing.  He told me that he had to come to tell me “face to face” that the US Embassy had informed him that he and his family would be leaving Thailand within one month!  The huge smile on his face said it all.  This was a moment of victory in the midst of crisis.  I am humbled by the resilience this man showed in coming all the way to our office to share his good news – and I think it rightfully reflects the esteem in which AAT is held amongst the refugee community.

3. How about our refugee clients? How are they coping in Thailand? Are there places where they might seek refuge, get a hot meal and other help in this time of crisis? Can they access help just like other legal residents?

MT: To put it bluntly, no.

As I said, there really is very little assistance available.  I read in a local newspaper that the state policy is to “look after Thai citizens first” so that doesn’t inspire confidence. However, it is noted that the Lawyers Council of Thailand and the Ministry of Labor discussed the problem and agreed to establish a Center whereby migrant workers regardless of their legal status could seek refuge and receive assistance there. Also, you have to remember that because they are illegal (Thailand does not provide even temporary legal status while awaiting resettlement), the refugees do not want to draw attention to themselves and approach the authorities for help as that might lead to being detained.

UNHCR has provided some food supplies through the Bangkok Refugee Center and small financial assistance.  The social workers at the Jesuit Refugee Service have been doing an amazing job – they have been out in the water trying to help those who are isolated with food packages and trying to help with short term accommodation.  Church groups have also been helping with flood relief, but not specifically for refugees. There is some complaint from refugees and human rights organizations that their request for UNHCR’s rescue and assistance was refused given the limited capacity that UNHCR has available.

But for those who do have to evacuate there are ongoing doubts and concerns.  The refugees have told me that they are concerned about whether landlords will allow them back into their accommodation; whether they will have to pay exorbitant fees to get their belongings back or to again be able to rent their apartments.

Our clients, already vulnerable, will only be further marginalized by this disaster.

4. This is the second period of difficulty AAT has worked through in the last two years, the first one being the period of unrest and violence in May 2010 when clashes broke out between the red shirts and yellow shirts. How is this time different for Asylum Access Thailand and its refugee clients?

MT: Well, with political unrest you can avoid the danger.  With a natural disaster, you don’t have a choice!

It will be interesting to see what happens after the flood dissipates.  There are criticisms by local public here that the Government has performed poorly.  Will that lead to more protests and political unrest?  Only time will tell.

The challenge for Asylum Access Thailand in a tense domestic political environment is how can we create an advocacy space for refugee rights?  It’s not easy.  But, if anything, when you see the resilience of refugees during a time such as this, you realize that the pursuit of human dignity for all human beings surely is something worth fighting for. It drives you to do more and we will continue to meet that challenge.

November 15, 2011