Bangkok is an exercise in constrasts. Thai people are polite, passive and respectful but on the traffic-clogged roads, they are ruthless and unforgiving, quick with the horn and unafraid to run over a pedestrian who crosses their furious path. It’s a bustling city with skyscrapers, a modern train and subway system where almost every spot deposits a crush of people into giant gleaming shopping malls several stories high. The malls are spotless and with air conditioning cooling people as they stroll past the luxury stores. It’s a shock, then, to walk through the streets, on the cracked, uneven pavement where missing chunks are clumsily repaired by slabs of concrete or planks of wood. The smog-filled air is muggy with the thick smell of street food and garbage, lots of garbage strewn about with nary a rubbish bin in sight. In the shadow of the skyscrapers are crumbling apartment buildings with corrugated roofs and laundry draped on clothes lines.
Sitting on the streets or in the train station corridors are images of extreme poverty. A weathered woman with bag under her eyes sits on a blanket with a sleeping baby in her lap, a McDonald’s cup containing a few coins, likely no more than one Canadian dollar. A disabled man with thin wispy grey hair makes no effort to cover his emaciated frame and stump leg as he rocks back and forth, his eyes searching to connect with passersby in the hope they will drop a few Baht in his tattered hat. The most destitute and vulnerable rely on the sympathy of tourists and their fellow people to live rather than their government which has seemingly forgotten them. Many marginalized people are forgotten in Thailand, amid a social welfare system with cracks as big as those in the sidewalk.
The situation is even worse for so-called urban refugees in Bangkok. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Bangkok estimates there are about 2,000 urban refugees waiting to be resettled to third countries. They face a difficult life in Bangkok. The Thai government is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention so refugees are considered illegal immigrants. They are unable to work, kids are unable to go to school and they cannot collect social welfare. They also risk being arrested and arbitrarily detained in a detention centre.
I spoke with one Tamil refugee family who were arrested and held for years inside the cramped cell, which at times was stuffed with 400 people. Chandru, 25, was locked away for four years, his three sisters and mother for two. They were finally granted bail in September 2011, after paying 50,000 baht per person, about $1,600.
While the women in the family have resettled in the United States, Chandru is still waiting for a country to accept him. He’s hoping maybe Finland by 2013, six years after he fled Sri Lanka.
There’s a lot of publicity around the “boat people”, asylum seekers waiting in South East Asia who choose to pay human smugglers to get on a leaky fishing boat heading to Australia, or on two occasions, to Canada, when the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea arrived with a combined 568 Tamil asylum seekers in October 2009 and August 2010, respectively.
The Canadian government responded with tougher refugee reforms to punish so-called queue jumpers, including mandatory detention and a five-year ban on family reunification, travel and permanent resident status. The Canadian and Australian government said asylum seekers should follow proper channels by registering with the UNHCR and then waiting for resettlement.
But when that wait is years long, with no job, no school for your children and with the constant threat of imprisonment, it’s no surprise people choose to jump on boats.
“Life is tough for them,” said Vivian Tan, UNHCR Bangkok spokeswoman. “They know they can’t continue living like this for a long time,” she said, a situation which creates the sheer desperation that pushes people onto boats.
The UNHCR is trying to reduce wait times and touts a regional solution in creating safer pathways for migration. Mandatory detention of asylum seekers, be it in Thailand, Australia or Canada, is not the answer, Tan said.
“Our position on detention is quite clear we don’t think it’s the solution and it hasn’t proven to be a deterrent,” Tan said. “People are still coming.”
Katie DeRosa is a Times Colonist journalist travelling in Australia and Thailand investigating mandatory detention of asylum seekers in light of the Canadian government bringing in tougher refugee reforms under Bill C-31.