REFUGEE SERIES: Years of hardship force refugees, like those in Thailand, to take chances

KATIE DEROSA
VICTORIA TIMES COLONIST

When two migrant ships carrying 568 Tamils arrived off Victoria’s shores, the federal government cracked down, bringing in a tough refugee law that will throw boat people into mandatory detention in provincial jails. The plan is modelled on the one used by Australia — a system that studies say has cost huge amounts of money and has failed. Times Colonist reporter Katie DeRosa, funded by the inaugural the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding fellowship, travelled to Australia and Southeast Asia to examine the system and what it could mean for Canada and Canadian taxpayers.

A family is escorted off the MV Sun Sea after they and an estimated 490 suspected Tamil refugees arrived on a cargo ship at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C. on Vancouver Island Aug. 13, 2010. Andy Clark/Reuters

BANGKOK — Chandru is in limbo. The 25-year-old Sri Lankan refugee has been waiting in Thailand for five years to be resettled in a safe country. He spent four years of that time locked in an overcrowded, windowless cell in the immigration detention centre in Bangkok.

His three sisters and mother spent two years in detention before they were released on bail last fall at 50,000 baht apiece, or about $1,600 — a large sum refugees don’t get back if they leave the country.

His sisters and mother have resettled in the United States, but Chandru is still waiting for a country to accept him. Although he’s on bail and checks in with immigration officials every two weeks, he constantly fears being arrested and thrown in the centre again.

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He lives with his father, who is recognized as a refugee but also hasn’t been resettled, in a musty one-room apartment in Bangkok. “The situation is really bad for refugees here,” said Chandru, who only gave his first name for fear of reprisals by Thai immigration officials.

That’s the difficult situation facing most urban refugees who flee their homes for transit countries such as Thailand, hoping to be resettled in Canada, Australia or the United States.

Because Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, asylum seekers and refugees are treated like illegal immigrants and not allowed to work, go to school or receive social welfare. Many have to wait years while their cases wind their way through the refugee system.

“Life is tough for them,” said Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok. “Most refugees have little access to public services. They can’t work. They find work in the grey economy doing dirty, dangerous, difficult jobs that no one else wants to do. Their children can’t go to school. They are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention and they’re not guaranteed a solution.”

“They know they can’t continue living like this for a long time.”

It’s these dire circumstances that often push asylum seekers in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to pay human smugglers to get on dangerous boats heading for Australia, and, on two occasions in the past three years, to Canada.

Chandru said his family never considered paying a smuggler. But 492 Tamils did choose that option, leaving the port city of Songkhla and arriving off B.C.’s west coast on Aug. 13, 2010. Ten months earlier, 76 Tamil asylum seekers had turned up on the Ocean Lady.

The Canadian government calls them queue jumpers and has taken dramatic steps to stop future boat migrants from reaching Canadian shores. Passed last summer, Bill C-31 imposes mandatory detention and a five-year ban on family reunification, permanent resident status and travel for any asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Michael Timmins, legal services manager for Asylum Access in Bangkok, said the inadequate protection for refugees in Thailand and other countries in South East Asia is one of the factors that push asylum seekers to pay human smugglers for a spot on a boat. Submitted photo

But Michael Timmins of the non-profit refugee advocacy group Asylum Access in Bangkok says when you’re a refugee, there is no queue. Canada and other Western countries have such strict visa policies that someone from Sri Lanka, for example, cannot get a visa to travel there, Timmins said. So people head to countries such as Thailand, where they can easily get in on a tourist visa. But Timmins said the constant fear of being arrested means they can’t build a life there.

“They’ve been thrust into a situation where they have to leave their country for their life and then come to another country where their life is intolerable,” Timmins said. “When people start talking about other options, to maybe take a boat, then you start to look at it.”

While Timmins says he’s not defending human smugglers, such operations have long been a way for desperate people to escape persecution. “Think of classic movies, the Kite Runner, how did they get out? They got out of Afghanistan illegally. Think of Schindler’s List, what was that? That was a people-smuggling operation. We’re talking about different contexts here. The networks out of Thailand, they are criminal for sure, but they are responding to a need, in that there’s a complete lack of protection in the region.”

After the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, the RCMP thwarted four more human-smuggling ships they believe were destined for Canada. The government quietly put pressure on Thai officials to stop more asylum seekers from getting on boats. The result was a massive roundup of Tamils, with immigration police storming several apartment blocks known to house Sri Lankans on Oct. 11, 2010.

A total of 136 Sri Lankans registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were detained, including three pregnant women and 30 children. Just over two weeks later, 61 Sri Lankans were arrested in Songklha and Hat Yai and transferred to the Suan Phlu immigration detention in Bangkok.

Twenty-eight more Sri Lankans were arrested by the end of that year.

While Chandru and his family were already facing deplorable conditions inside the detention centre, it became even more crowded with the new arrivals. “Sometimes, like, 400 people will be stuffed in a room where only 100 can stay,” said Divia, 20, over Skype from her new home in California.

The Immigration Detention Centre is in the Suan Phlu area of Bangkok, amid traffic-choked streets, lined with merchants selling chicken satays and fried dumplings.

Chandru, who now makes a little money working as a Tamil translator for the Bangkok Refugee Centre, walks past the row of big, black caged-in trucks that transported him and other asylum seekers to the centre. The building could pass for a government office if it wasn’t for the gates that encase the reception area. The reception door is open, but the detention centre itself is behind a solid steel door about 2.5 centimetres thick.

A nurse with the Jesuit Refugee Service who works at the centre five days a week calls conditions “very difficult.” Chandru said when he was in detention, the nurse would often translate between detainees and security guards to make sure people got the help they needed. Children in detention can’t go to Thai schools, but are allowed to attend a makeshift classroom that also serves as a daycare in a building next door.

For the adults, the only respite from staring at the dark walls are monthly family days, when all detainees are released into a central compound.

Fathers have a chance to hug their wives or kiss their children.

After they were released, Chandru’s family was told if they were willing to split up, they would be resettled faster. “My mom said yes because she was concerned about our studies,” said Divia, who is finishing her high school diploma and hopes to go to university. Now the family’s only connection is through grainy images on Skype.

Though Chandru is a designated refugee, the United States won’t accept him but because of his alleged ties to the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam, which many countries consider a terrorist organization.

Chandru, however, insists he never fought with the Tamil Tigers. In fact, the military group caused problems for his family, he said, coming to their home to look for his father, who was a member of the Democratic People’s Liberation Front. Repeated threats forced Chandru’s father out of the country in 2005. The rest of the family followed in 2007.

Oliver White, spokesman for the Jesuit Refugee Service, said of the 263 Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok, 15 per cent have links to the Tamil Tigers. Some of those links, however, are very tenuous. “During the war, if you were Tamil, the LTTE was like a de facto government, so everyone was working to some various degrees.”

For one refugee, that involved printing banners. “He never saw active combat, never committed any human-rights violations,” White said. Yet the man is not eligible for resettlement. It’s this group of people who are most likely to get on a boat, he said.

In January, the Canadian government announced it would spend $12 million on anti-human-smuggling operations in Southeast Asia, including $7 million on projects in Thailand. The funds include money to train police, immigration and border patrol officers in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos.

Refugee advocates say law enforcement and border patrol are not the only answer, however. White said if Canada is going to push governments in Southeast Asia to crack down on human smugglers, it should also pressure those countries to give refugees legal status so they can work and their children can go to school.

“What we’re seeing from states like Canada or Australia, they’re quite proactive in trying to smash and break the smuggling networks,” White said.

“They’re tightening up on their borders, engaging a number of measures to prevent people from even reaching their shores, but not doing enough to address the root causes of the displacement in the first place and to increase protection and find durable solutions for people in transit countries.”

“If they do both, that would be a much better model.”

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