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What Factors Influence Thailand’s Approach To Refugees?
Fiona Raval
2024-05-02
Region : South East Asia, Thailand,
Issue : Security, Politics,
Thailand is looking at a new wave of refugees and asylum-seekers with the establishment of mandatory military service in Myanmar. The junta in Myanmar has recently activated the country’s conscription law, creating widespread panic and the possibility of an exodus. Those fleeing are likely to seek refuge in Thailand—Myanmar and Thailand share a long, largely non-demarcated and porous land border, and the latter has generally been a haven of choice for asylum-seekers since the 1980s.
Thailand, however, is not party to international conventions on the treatment of refugees and makes no legal differentiation between refugees, asylum-seekers, and illegal immigrants. It has also been accused of refugee maltreatment. This anticipated inflow of asylum-seekers, in what is the latest episode of Thailand’s enduring tryst with refugees, thus puts the spotlight back on the country’s approach to refugee identification and treatment.

Legislative Hurdles
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Over the past few years, Thailand has tried to regulate the migrant/refugee domain by passing several legislations. The practicability and execution of these legislations is however questionable. The National Screening Mechanism (NSM), arguably the most prominent legislation, intends to screen and identify individuals who need protection in Thailand and cannot return to their home countries. While this legislation would strengthen refugee protection by safeguarding them from arbitrary arrest, detentions, and deportations, it hasn’t been implemented yet—despite being passed in 2019. Additionally, even if implemented, NSM has sparked scepticism and outcry among rights groups and asylees as they fear its potential to be used for surveillance: a tool for screening ‘out’ rather than screening ‘in’.
Another important piece of legislation, in terms of economic protection, is Thailand’s Labour Protection Act, which applies to non-nationals as well. However, refugees are exempt from these protections as they aren’t legally allowed to work. They thus find themselves being part of the informal and unregulated workforce, primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the Foreigners’ Working Management Emergency Decree B.E.2560. Per Section 63, the legislation can be applied to individuals experiencing circumstances similar to refugees. Its enforcement however requires a cabinet resolution which still hasn’t come through, though the decree was passed in 2017.
Extradition
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Successful extradition requests made to Thailand are not necessarily subject to extradition treaties signed with other countries. An individual is extraditable from Thailand as long as the crime in question is punishable in Thailand as well as the requesting country. Therefore, given the strict domestic legal restraints on political dissent, people seeking asylum on grounds of political persecution are particularly vulnerable to forced repatriation or refoulement.
Thailand’s extradition of anti-government Vietnamese journalist Truong Duy Nhat; Cambodian labour activist Sam Sokha; and opposition activists from Myanmar are some examples of such refoulement. Thailand is also notorious for the repression of exiled dissidents, such as the mysterious deaths of three Thai anti-monarchists in Laos and the disappearances of Thai activists who had fled to Vietnam. Such methods depend on the formal and informal cooperation of other countries, leading to arrangements that have often sacrificed the principle of non-refoulement. In a cyclical way, the lack of refugee protections thus further disincentivises official pro-refugee positions.

Domestic Public Sentiment
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As per public surveys conducted in certain parts of Thailand, the Thai public have mixed feelings about migrants and asylum-seekers. While most respondents on these surveys were accepting of migrants, they displayed a strong preference for migrant labour over people seeking refuge due to ethno-religious reasons. As per a 2019 International Labour Organization (ILO) report, more than 70 per cent of Thai respondents related high crime rates with migrants, and tended to believe that they threaten the country’s culture and heritage.
These negative outlooks on migrants and asylum-seekers are intensified by the surge in the Malay Muslim insurgency in the south of Thailand where, for years, ethnic Malay Muslims have been at odds with the predominantly Buddhist Thai state. Their long-standing resistance against what they call ‘Thai colonialism’ has led to insurgent violence and demands for a separate state. Due to this conflict, the Buddhist population in the south has dwindled. Notably, while Muslim refugees struggle in most parts of the country, the south accepts them warmly as part of the community. This demographic impact, however, coupled with the steady inflow of Muslim refugees, especially from Myanmar, fuels negative public sentiment elsewhere in the country. The Thai military has gone as far as accusing the Rohingya of partaking in this insurgent movement and have thus expelled, detained, or pushed back incoming refugees into the sea.
Conclusion
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In the face of an escalating crisis in Myanmar, Thailand has come under pressure to adopt a more just and inclusive approach towards refugees and asylum-seekers. Bangkok’s stance on refugees, however, continues to be uncertain due to ambiguous laws and inconsistent enforcement. Moreover, Thai public sentiment by and large tends to reflect hostility toward those seeking refuge. In navigating this challenging policy area, Thailand will hopefully balance domestic complexities with its humanitarian obligations.
• About the author: Fiona Raval is Research Assistant with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).
This article was originally published by the IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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