Palestinian and Syrian migrants swept up in wave of arrests in Thailand

This photo of Palestinian migrants packed into a Thai police van has been widely shared on Facebook by Palestinian NGOs over the last few weeks.
This photo of Palestinian migrants packed into a Thai police van has been widely shared on Facebook by Palestinian NGOs over the last few weeks.

Dozens of Syrian and Palestinian families were arrested by Thai police and placed in a detention centre in Bangkok, where they have been since the middle of October. Most of these families fled war in Syria and Iraq. Our Observer decries the failure of the UN and Thai authorities to find solutions for these families.

Although most of these families applied for refugee status at the regional UN Refugee Agency office in Bangkok, they did not receive it, and no country has agreed to accept them. Some Palestinian and Syrian families weren’t swept up in the wave of arrests – but now they live in hiding and permanent fear of arrest.

An estimated number of between 450 and 600 Palestinians and Syrians have gone to Thailand since 2012, according to the NGO Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. Thailand is one of the few countries that dispenses tourist visas for people from Syria. These families initially took three-month tourist visas, before soon finding themselves living in Thailand illegally.

When they arrived in the country, these families requested asylum at the regional refugee office, hoping that they would be resettled in a third country. Thailand doesn’t consider itself obligated to grant asylum to Syrians and Palestinians as it isn’t a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which sets out a protocol for the treatment of refugees.

Arrests for the "stability of the country"

In mid-October, Thai police carried out a series of arrests of migrants without documents, cracking down on bars and other public places. The military junta that has been in power since the coup d’état in 2014 justified the operation, dubbed ‘X-Ray Outlaw Foreigner’, by saying that it would “preserve the stability of the country” in the run-up to general elections in 2019.

Photos showing families, including women and children, packed inside caged police vans circulated on social media. The detainees we spoke to said that they were being kept in poor conditions inside the detention centres, with overcrowded cells and not enough food.

These photos showing Palestinians in a police van and in a detention centre were published by a number of NGOs on Facebook, including the Facebook page for Action Group for Palestinians of Syria.

"Lots of families had to move. They were scared of being denounced by their landlords"

Leith (not his real name) comes from the Rukneddine neighbourhood in Damas. He fled Syria in 2013 with his wife. So far he has managed to evade arrest, but lives in hiding.

My wife and I left for Thailand with a three-month tourist visa. We didn’t think we would stay a long time in the country. We went and registered ourselves at the UN Refugee Agency office in Bangkok, thinking that they would find us a third country to relocate to within six months. But five years later, and nothing has been done.

Once our visa ran out, we were living illegally. Thai people helped us and got sponsor certificates from the police, which stated that they had agreed to be responsible for us. [Editor’s Note: The document costs around 1000 euros].

The certificates have an expiry date, however: a maximum of 18 months. But for five years, Thai people would renew them for us. Other kind people helped us to find work. I’m a trained architect, but I managed to find a job as a sales assistant in a shop selling handbags and mobile phones.

I came to Thailand in 2013. I had only just got married and my wife was pregnant for the first time. I didn’t think that she would give birth in Thailand. Now, five years later, I have three children and I still haven’t found a country willing to host me and my family.

Since they arrived in Thailand, Palestinians and Syrians with a sponsor are required to go to the local police station every two weeks to sign a document confirming their presence in the country. Our Observer Leith described this process:

The Thai authorities started to lose patience. At the end of September, they started arresting everyone who went to the police station to sign the document. They nullified their sponsor certificates and then took them to the detention centre in Bangkok.

The police also carried out raids in several neighbourhoods. Now we live in constant fear. Lots of families have moved house, because they’re scared of being denounced by their landlords.

"My sister’s husband was arrested during his regular meeting at the police station"

Leïla (not her real name) is a Palestinian from Syria. In 2013, she fled a Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, near Damascus, which at the time was the location of intense fighting between pro-governmental Syrian forces and rebel factions. She’s now in Thailand, where she lives in fear of being arrested after her sister was arrested with her husband and children two weeks ago.

My sister’s husband had his regular meeting at the police station to sign the document confirming his presence in mid-October. He was scared that he would be arrested and didn’t want to go. He contacted the UN Refugee Agency, and they told him on the phone that they couldn’t do anything for him and that it would be better for him to go to the police station. So he went, was quickly arrested and was sent to a detention centre.

Not long afterwards, my sister and her children were arrested by the police when they raided their neighbourhood. We lived in the same apartment. I hid with my two children in a bedroom, and miraculously the police didn’t discover us. But they did manage to get my sister, who had climbed out onto the roof with her children to escape. They were sent to the detention centre in Bangkok.

The same day, the police took away two Palestinian families from Iraq and a family from Syria. They’re all in the same detention centre. My husband died a few years ago in Syria. I’m alone in the house with my children. I don’t even dare go outside in case I’m arrested too.”

The UN Refugee Agency says it "lacks resources"

These families say the UN Refugee Agency has abandoned them and failed to find them a host country. Hannah McDonald, a spokesperson for the agency, told FRANCE 24 that the organisation has limited means to help them.

While UNHCR and other partners have modest assistance programmes [for refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand], due to limited resources, these have to be targeted to the most vulnerable refugees.

Although most refugees want to go home, many cannot because of continued conflict, wars and persecution. Others hope for resettlement, but in reality, there are many more refugees around the world who need a resettlement place than the places available. Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled each year and the number of places available continues to decline.

The raids have affected people who have fled war or persecution in their country. As well as these arrests in the Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi communities, more than 70 Pakistani Christians who had fled religious persecution in Pakistan were arrested in October.

The police’s campaign of arrests has also been criticised for deliberately targeting black people. Thai immigration bureau chief Surachate Hakparn told AFP that “our job is to classify who are the good dark-skinned people and who are the ones likely to commit crimes”, alluding to African migrants in Thailand.

Since the beginning of October, approximately one thousand foreigners in illegal situations have been arrested, most of them for having stayed on in the country after their tourist visa expired.

Article written by Djamel Belayachi.