Treatment of Burma Refugees Spotlighted Ahead of Thai Rights Review

By The Irrawaddy 17 March 2016

Seven international human rights groups on Wednesday urged the Thai government to better protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking in the Southeast Asian country, which has for years been dogged by criticism for its handling of these populations, including many Burmese.

A joint statement from the organizations released in Bangkok on Wednesday said the Thai government “should commit to concrete actions to respect, protect, and promote the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking during its upcoming Universal Periodic Review [UPR] at the United Nations Human Rights Council.”

In May, Thailand will undergo its second Universal Periodic Review—a process in which the UN Human Rights Council reviews the human rights record of member states every four years. The seven groups also published a joint submission for the review on Wednesday, recommending several of these “concrete actions,” including signing the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, relating to the Status of Refugees and their rights and legal obligations of states.

Thailand’s non-signatory status is frequently cited as one reason that refugees, asylum seekers and human trafficking victims in the country are vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, extortion, torture and forced repatriations to countries where they have often fled persecution. It also lacks domestic legislation protecting the rights of these populations, Wednesday’s statement said, referring to more than 100,000 Burmese refugees who have lived in camps along the Thai-Burma border for more than two decades.

“Since 2011, Thailand has effectively denied at least tens of thousands of camp-based asylum seekers and refugees from Myanmar access to asylum procedures,” the statement said.

Amy Smith, executive director of the Thailand-based human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights, said in the statement: “Thailand has an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to human rights and improve its international reputation by ensuring asylum seekers and refugees have access to legal protections.”

“A key to minimizing the abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking of displaced populations in Thailand is recognition and protection,” she added.

Julia Mayerhofer, interim executive director of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said in the statement that although the Thai government has made commitments to ending the immigration detention of children, the practice continues, another blight on the country’s human rights record.

“Children should not be detained, and we urge the Thai government to actively explore alternatives to detention in partnership with civil society,” Mayerhofer said.

The rights groups also accused Thai authorities of implementing a “push-back” policy to asylum seekers who arrive by boats.

In 2015, the plight of asylum seekers from Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority and economic migrants from Bangladesh gained international media attention after Thai authorities pushed them out to sea, putting them at risk of death.

The other five organizations signing on to the release were Asylum Access; the Human Rights Development Foundation; the Jesuit Refugee Service; the Migrant Working Group; and the People’s Empowerment Foundation.