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Issue #1706      October 14, 2015

Syrian refugees in Bangkok: caught between a rock and a hard place

Many Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland risk the perilous journey over the Mediterranean Sea; a direct, but costly, route to the safety of Europe. But a minority have chosen a different route to escape the bloodshed and danger of their native Syria: they head to Thailand. This route, however, harbours its own perils.

Masses of Syrian refugees fleeing Western-backed destruction.

A small contingent has fled east, toward the apparent safety of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, before attempting to be resettled in the Americas or Europe. Unknown to many, however, this option is far from safe. One refugee, Qusai, tells me that it might have been better for him to cross the Mediterranean because, “If I’m dead, I’m dead. Here, I die slowly”.

A scroll down the Thai British Embassy website shows us that “Thai” means “Free”. “Thailand” thus means “Land of the Free” or “Freeland”. To some individuals, it is anything but.

Thailand is usually associated with beach resorts, full-moon parties and British expatriates. Holiday-makers do not usually associate the country with a fractured and non-existent democratic system that has been in a state of flux since democracy, or a form of democracy, was first introduced more than 80 years ago.

Since 1932, when absolute monarchy was abolished, Thailand has seen 12 successful coups d’état, more than any other nation. The 12th took place in May 2014, when the Royal Thai Army General, Prayut Chan-o-cha, overthrew the caretaker government following six months of political turmoil.

Following this latest coup, a number of personal liberties and democratic rights have been marginalised, while the already-small number of rights refugees once had have been further weakened.

Qusai, along with Amjad, are second-generation Syrian-born Arabian refugees who fled Damascus and the Syrian civil war in 2012. Qusai and Amjad were both born refugees. Their grandfathers fled Palestine in 1948, following the Palestinian civil war, and resettled in Syria. Syria, they tell me, was good to them. They built their lives and, in Qusai’s case, raised a family there. Many rights were enjoyed and exercised while jobs were relatively easy to come by.

After the start of the civil war in 2011, both were forced to flee their homeland and gain refugee status from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Rather than flee directly to Europe, the more expensive and dangerous route, their group of travelling Syrians opted to head to Thailand on tourist visas, which are easy to obtain.

Their perception of safety in Thailand was soon shattered. Amjad, who holds a refugee certificate from the UN, was soon arrested for travelling on a forged passport. Sent to trial, he was sentenced to two years in jail. Protesting his case proved futile and, after a thieving lawyer took the majority of his money and ran, an already poor start to Thai life continued to get worse.

Qusai explains to me that resettlement has always been their aim, but after three and a half years of living in Thailand this seems light years away.

They were interviewed by the UNHCR in Bangkok just after arriving in Thailand, and by the Canadian Embassy more than a year and half ago, but Qusai, his family and Amjad are still no closer to knowing if their dream of starting a new life in the West will be realised. “It’s a very long process,” Qusai explains, “but no-one will answer us.” The US, Canada, Australia and Britain are apparently notoriously slow at deciding who is to be given a “golden ticket” to build a new life. Sweden, on the other hand, took a friend of Qusai and Amjad’s after just three months.

After almost two years, Qusai and Amjad have yet to hear a word from the Canadian Embassy on whether they have been successful in their application. “Reject or accept is fine, I just want to know,” an exasperated Amjad states.

Qusai believes that the US won’t take a Palestinian-Syrian like himself for political reasons, while his verdict on the current British refugee policy is equally damning: Britain “never takes refugees from here, never.”

The purgatory period is painful for any refugee family hoping to be resettled, but what has made the last three years considerably more painful for Qusai and his family is the political context they find themselves in. Qusai shares a tiny one-person apartment room with his family of four and, living in a politically unstable Bangkok, there is “a new fear every day”.

When I ask what he thinks of the Thai government, Qusai simply shakes his head and asks: “If the government wanted to help us, why catch us and put us in jail?” It transpires that after the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in August this year, animosity from the police toward refugees stepped up so much that 24 Syrians living in the same apartment block were rounded up and arrested. The 24 included children aged 2 and 5.

Qusai further explains that one night in late August police came to the apartment block and told the Syrians: “Don’t worry, don’t be scared.” They had every right to be, however. They were shepherded, in the dead of night, to a local police cell, where the 24 Syrians spent the night. They were then sent to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), where Qusai and his family (his wife, 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter) were separated. The 24 Syrians spent a whole week locked up in the IDC before being released without explanation. A local aid worker tells me that there is a case of one man being locked in the IDC for 14 years.

Even before the bombing and the subsequent suspicion toward refugees, there were already many problems. Qusai tells the story of his employment at an Arabian restaurant in the popular tourist district of Nana: “I worked 12 hours with very little pay.” This is an understatement: as Thailand is yet to offer work permits to refugees waiting for resettlement, many are forced to work illegally to feed their families. Qusai worked 12-hour shifts and was paid 300 Thai baht for his entire shift. This works out at less than $1 an hour.

His young children, like many other refugees in Bangkok, are deprived of basic education through lack of compassion in Thai government policy toward refugees. His daughter cannot go to normal school and is instead taught occasionally on weekends by a local Muslim teacher. And this is more education than most refugee children receive.

“We are alone, we are waiting,” Qusai explains. “Please speak to us,” he pleads to the embassies.

I had the privilege of meeting with Qusai and Amjad at their home, and learned more about the refugee crisis, from a completely new perspective.

The horrific scenes we see of individuals attempting to start a new life, to escape potential death, and being met with animosity or the dangerous and deep waters of the Mediterranean are heartbreaking. Talking with Qusai and Amjad allowed me to hear about a different and lesser known plight that some refugees face. I also saw and understood the damage a government can do that has little, or no, compassion towards those without a home.

Qusai, Amjad and I shared Arabian tea and swapped phone numbers. We promised to meet up again if we ever found ourselves in the same country. Near the end of the afternoon, Qusai explained his hope for the future of his family, no doubt echoing the hope of many fleeing their homes in Syria: all Qusai wants is to “live in peace, work hard, and build a good future for my kids so they can go to school and learn and live a normal life.”

New Internationalist

Next article – Region Briefs

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