Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol. Due to its immigration laws the vast majority of people seeking asylum and recognised refugees are likely to be illegally resident in the country and are regarded as illegal migrants. There is no national framework for refugee status determination (RSD), as such UNHCR registers and undertakes RSD in urban areas.
There are no publicly available up-to-date numbers on asylum seekers, refugees, or those awaiting registration in Bangkok. UNHCR, in its 2013 country operations profile, estimated that in December 2013 there would be just under 2000 registered asylum seekers and refugees. However, it is widely acknowledged that the numbers of persons seeking refuge in Thailand has significantly increased over the past 12 months. An upsurge in the numbers of people fleeing the conflict in Syria, mostly Palestinians, and those escaping violence against religious minorities in Pakistan has meant that the numbers of those awaiting either registration with UNHCR or a RSD have likely sharply risen.
Countries of origin of asylum seekers, refugees, and those awaiting registration include: Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia, Iran, China, Cambodia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.
UNHCR does not conduct RSD for refugees from Burma. Burmese refugees are allowed in live in Thailand on condition of remaining in the refugee camps along the Thai / Myanmar border. It has been reported that those who come to Bangkok and approach UNHCR are instructed to go and present at a camp.
Once registered with UNHCR ‘Asylum Seeker Certificates’ confirm that the holder is a ‘person of concern’ to UNHCR. The certificates do not hold legal weight to protect against arrest and detention, and do not convey the right to work.
Most refugees arrive in Bangkok with a passport and tourist visa. This means on initial entry they are legally in the country. Once their tourist visas expire they are considered illegal migrants under Thai law, which doesn’t allow for urban refugees.
Once refugees have been through the RSD process, for those who are recognised they may go through the process of being resettled (the only durable solution available to most). Resettlement rates are known to be higher than for most other countries amongst those recognised under the 1951 convention (comparatively to other countries hosting urban refugees), but the process is slow (in 2011 the time period from UNHCR referral to departure was on average 918 days).
Refugees are scattered across poor areas of the city and in the suburbs. Whilst refugees from particular countries often tend to live together, refugees are discouraged by service providers from living in big groups, because of the potential for mass arrest and detention. Accommodation can be difficult to find and overcrowding is common. Refugees are encouraged to find accommodation whilst they still have a valid visa, as passport and proof of legal residence is often required by landlords.
Whilst fast modes of transport (such as motorcycle taxis and the sky train system) are available, these are expensive. As a result, many refugees travel by bus. The traffic in Bangkok is heavy, and this means that journeys to service providers and to UNHCR can take many hours. Coupled with the fear of arrest when out in public, the consequences of refugees being spread out around Bangkok is that access to services is reduced.
1951 Convention: Not a signatory
1967 Protocol: Not a signatory
No domestic legislation governing refugees (Burmese refugees are dealt with under a separate executive order, permitting them to stay in Thailand if they are registered in one of the camps along the Thai / Myanmar border).
Immigration Act B.E. 2522 (1979) has no provision that allows legal residence to a person who is classified as an asylum seeker or refugee. Instead, the person would be considered an illegal alien if his or her travel document becomes invalid, and could be subject to prolonged detention and/or deportation.
Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (2013) Urban Refugees in Asia Pacific, Resiliency and Coping Strategies – National Consultations: Bangkok
Asylum Access, Boat People SOS and Conscience Foundation (2009) UNHCR Protection Challenges for Urban Refugees in Thailand: Report and Recommendations
Asylum Access Thailand (2011) Urban Refugees in Thailand
den Otter, V. (2007), Forced Migration Review, 28: 49 – 50, Urban asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand
Human Rights Watch (2012) Ad Hoc and Inadequate: Thailand’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers
JRS Asia-Pacific (2012) The Search: Protection Space in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines
Kagan, M. (2013) UNHCR’s Bangkok Office Defies the Right to Counsel
UNHCR (2006) Analysis of Gaps in Refugee Protection Capacity: Thailand
UNHCR (2013) UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Thailand