Migrant detention abuse can scar children for life

Migrant detention “abuse” can scar children for life

BANGKOK, 21 October 2014 (IRIN) – An increasing number of migrant children are being detained in countries where they are seeking asylum despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such incarceration leads to long-term psychological and developmental difficulties.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2013 declared detaining migrant children is “never in [children’s] best interests and is not justifiable” and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it should be conducted with an “ethic of care – and not enforcement”. However, according to a June 2014 article in The Lancet, more than 60 countries detain migrant children, which causes “deleterious effects on children’s mental, developmental, and physical health”.

Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

So when, in response to a recent surge in migrant children, the US was discovered to be detaining large numbers of migrant children, analysts flayed the tactic. Between October 2013 and September 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southern border, a 77 percent increase on the previous year; 70 percent reported they were held for more than the legally-allowed 72 hours. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued: “a wide variety of research studies link immigration detention with mental health consequences for children, including harm that lasts beyond the period of detention.”

And when Australia, home to the notorious Operation Sovereign Borders programme, announced on 19 August 2014 that it would release some migrant children from detention, the plan’s limitations – an arrival cut-off date of 19 July 2013, and age limit of 10 years – drew criticism that the move might, in fact, exacerbate mental health problems. Karen Zwi, a paediatrician and head of the Community Child Health department at Australia’s Sydney Children’s Hospital, said the new release plan “will affect only 16 percent of those currently in locked detention”, arguing it could “heighten the despair of the other 745 (84 percent) children who have been excluded from the release.”

“What we see in children in detention is a huge range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) for a prolonged period of time,” Zwi told IRIN, referring to ACEs, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) defines as: “some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children may suffer”, ranging from neglect to violence. “The more of those that you are exposed to, the worse your outcome in adulthood is in terms of physical and mental health,” Zwi said.

Evidence mounting

A 2014 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that the majority of a representative sample of the country’s paediatricians “consider mandatory detention a form of child abuse”. Even among the 18 percent of respondents who “strongly approved” of detention of children in general, 92 percent said “detention of asylum-seeker children and their families is a form of child abuse.”

Evidence of the long-term impacts of child abuse is mounting: a 2014statistical analysis by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that abuse in childhood, including mental violence inflicted by conditions of detention, can have adverse impacts on educational achievement and personal income, and cause “damage at the societal level, including direct and indirect costs due to increased social spending and lost economic productivity”. For example, a 2013 study estimated the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific to exceed US$160 billion.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice.”

Today there are more forced migrants (51.2 million) than at any point since World War II, according to UNHCR – the majority from Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Half of them are children; at least 25,000 unaccompanied migrant children filed asylum claims in 2013. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), global migrants increased from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013. The International Detention Coalition(IDC) says states are increasingly responding by detaining migrants, and theNGO Coalition on Migration estimates one million migrant children are affected by detention globally.

Exposure to violence

Detained migrant children are exposed to all of the mental strains experienced by adult detainees. “The longer a child is detained, the more likely they will be exposed to… riots, hunger strikes, and self-harm incidents,” explained Oliver White, the head of policy and advocacy for Jesuit Refugee Services-Australia.

In Thailand and Indonesia, HRW documented detained migrant children witnessing fights and guards beating detainees. In Malta, which shoulders a heavy burden as migrants cross the Mediterranean and reach its shores, HRW found that children at immigration detention facilities suffer abuse at the hands of other detainees.

In a 2013 report on Manus Island, one of the off-shore locations where Australia processes asylum seekers who arrive by boat, Amnesty International quotes a service provider at the facility there as saying: “These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma.” In its 2013 report on Nauru, another Australian off-shore detention centre, UNHCR noted “the deteriorating mental health of children”.

Researchers say the impact of detention can be harsher on children, whose brains, when exposed to multiple negative stressors, can be re-wired with stress responses that last into adulthood. According to Zwi, this is a process of creating “neural pathways”, or tracts in the brain through which information is transported between brain cells.

“Fundamentally the problem is a threatening adverse environment,” Zwi said. “A child with well-developed pathways for fear is more likely to be scared and avoidant, impacting learning and how they face challenges for years after,” echoing UNICEF’s claim that “moderate or severe acts of violence can alter brain development and compromise a child’s potential.”

Others point to the lack of opportunity for recovery from trauma while in detention.

“The natural process is one of recovery but that can only be done in situations of safety and security,” explained Belinda Liddell, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales with the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Programme, which works to “understand the psychological and neurobiological effects of refugee trauma and pathways to recovery”.

A full stop to detention

According to government figures in August, there were 876 migrant children in detention in Australia.

Australia currently runs some psychological counselling programmes for detained immigrants, which Amnesty accused of being insufficiently resourced. However, according to Zwi, “even a lot of psychological help cannot make good the terrible exposure kids are experiencing.”

In February 2014, citing that the number of detained migrant children was higher than during its last study of the issue in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, which is due out by the end of the year.

July 2014 analysis of government data by the Refugee Council of Australiafound that while the total number of migrants in detention had decreased, child asylum seekers were more likely than adults to be detained, and the average length of detention had tripled since September 2013.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said in June 2014 that removing children from immigration detention was “the only way to protect their health”.

Refugee campaigners agree, and say the best response is to stop detaining migrant children globally. Alternatives to immigration detention implemented in some countries – including material and legal support – have proven not only more humane, but also cheaper than detention.

“The immigration detention of children and families, represents a grave violation of children’s rights and a serious breach of justice,” stated NGOs, including IDC and Terre des Hommes, at a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2014.

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Palestinian refugees protest in front of UN

Palestinian refugees who fled the Syrian war ask for UN protection in Bangkok/ 10 April 2014

Palestinian refugees who fled the Syrian war ask for UN protection in Bangkok/ 10 April 2014

11 April 2014 (Coconuts Media) — A group of more than 30 Palestinian refugees who fled the ongoing war in Syria to Thailand protested their lack of international protection yesterday in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok.

Holding dozens of white roses to symbolize a desire for peace, protesters called on the United Nations to expedite their applications for refugee status to help them move on from a vulnerable existence in the legal margins of Thailand.

“Everyone thinks we are terrorists, but we ran away from the war in Syria just asking to survive,” said Tammam, 37, who fled to Bangkok through Beirut with his wife and 9-year-old son seven months ago.

Using an olive branch instead of violence to assert human rights/ Palestinian protest UN/ 10 April 2014

Using an olive branch instead of violence to assert human rights/ Palestinian protest UN/ 10 April 2014

The group is asking to stay in Thailand legally while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gives them refugee status and resettles them elsewhere. Although 17 countries worldwide such as the United States, Canada and Australia pledged to accept nearly 19,000 Syrian refugees in 2013, it is unclear whether Palestinians are included, despite having lived in civil war-ravaged Syria for generations.

“Syria was our home. I still have a part of me left behind there,” said Ibrahim Ghazal, 22, from Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, who fled because he did not want to join the Syrian Army. “If I stayed, I would have been forced to kill people.”

The refugees’ biggest fear survival, and staying without breaking the law by not having valid visas. The protest — a risky move for a group in the country technically illegally— is the first desperate plea for humanitarian compassion made publicly since arriving more than half a year ago.

“During this time, my grandmother has died here, and we have many health problems. Now we can only afford to eat one time per day,” said Tammam, who explained that his wife is pregnant and struggles to find two meals to eat each day.

The Palestinian-Syrians, who entered on valid visas purchased in Lebanon (which they sold many of their assets to pay for), are now unable to renew their visas due to lack of funds and sometimes more bureaucratic barriers — in Cambodia and Laos, their Palestinian travel documents are not always recognized.

“Palestinians are extremely vulnerable because they do not have support from any state entity, consulate or nation they can appeal to. They are double term refugees,” said Leon Deleon, the Secretary of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, a Thailand-based advocacy group for Palestinians worldwide.

“These people carry so much trauma and displacement in this diaspora, there is no counselling or healthcare services for them [including the pregnant women],” Deleon added.

Currently, 12 Palestinian-Syrian refugees, including two children aged 4 and 8 detained with their mother for more than five months, are in the Bangkok Immigration Detention Centre for not having valid Thai visas. Three more are being held in the Krabi town jail.

“You can see me now, but tomorrow you might find me in IDC,” said an older, greying Palestinian-Syrian man, who did not want to be named due to his status.

Seeking help from an organisation with already over-stretched resources/ Palestinian Protest Bangkok/ 10 April 2014

Seeking help from an organisation with already over-stretched resources/ Palestinian Protest Bangkok/ 10 April 2014

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Branded terrorists by China, ‘Uighur’ refugees face torture if returned, rights groups warn

Children, part of a group of asylum seekers, sit in a truck as Thai Immigration officials escort them to a court in Songkhla province on March 15. Photo: Tuwaedaniya Meringing / AFP

Children, part of a group of asylum seekers, sit in a truck as Thai Immigration officials escort them to a court in Songkhla province on March 15. Photo: Tuwaedaniya Meringing / AFP

27 March 2014 (Coconuts Media) — Depending on who is speaking, about 300 refugees being detained in Thailand are either committed terrorists or terrified families.

Although local media Monday uncritically repeated Chinese assertions they are “terrorists” on the way to train in Turkey, refugee advocates say the group widely believed to be Chinese Uighurs – most of whom are women and children – are fleeing violence and abuse at home in China’s Xinjiang province.

“The Chinese state has been reacting to Uighur nationalism with arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, use of deadly force, and enforced disappearances,” said Anoop Sukumarin, the coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a network of more than 140 refugee organization.

Since mid-March 220 have been held at the Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre in southern Thailand, with 150 women and children held separately in shelters of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.

Since then an additional 112 suspected Uighurs have been arrested in Sa Kaew Province near the Thai-Cambodian border and brought to Bangkok’s Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre.

Because they fear a forced return to China, the Uighurs won’t identify themselves as such, according to organizations working with urban refugees in Bangkok.

One lawyer that provides free counsel to asylum seekers, who didn’t want to be identified due to the nature of his work, noted: “They are so afraid of anyone having potential links with the Chinese authorities they don’t even want to [say that they are refugees].”

With a recent increase in persecution of the group in China, they risk abuse if they return, according to human rights groups, who are calling for their protection along with the U.S. government. Meanwhile the people in question are asking for help getting to Turkey, according to the Turkish embassy and the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation, a national advocate for urban refugees.

Chinese persecution

While the Uighurs have long faced persecution in ethnic Han-dominated China, tensions have increased in recent years.

The Muslim minority originates from Xinjiang autonomous province of China and have been blamed by the government for instigating many terrorist attacks in the past decade.

Chinese authorities have used this to justify arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture.

“The Chinese state has often labeled the uprisings as linked to Islamic terrorist groups, a claim that has not been substantiated,” Sukumarin said.

In addition, Beijing has been accused of undermining Uighur culture in Xianjing by encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, into the area.

The 8.5 million Chinese Uighurs now account for 45 percent of Xinjiang, down from 75 percent in 1945.

In 1997, calls for independence by Uighurs in Yining city were quashed by military gunfire, while in 2008 Uighur separatists were blamed for a terrorist attack on police in the city of Kashgar.

On March 1 a knife attack at a train station in Kunming, which killed 29 and injured more than 100, was attributed to Uighur separatists by Chinese authorities, prompting a further crackdown.

Human rights activists say that if the Uighers in Thailand are returned to China, they will be accused of involvement in these acts and automatically face abuse by the government.

“Since they fled China, if they were forced to return, they would automatically be suspected of political activities and separatism and most likely be arrested or tortured,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation.

Fear of identification

Many of the group in Thailand, who the foundation believes were smuggled in from Xinjiang earlier this year, are asking to go to Turkey.

“They identify themselves as Turks and have asked to return to Turkey,” said Vivian Tan, the spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency in Asia Pacific.

Reportedly sensitive to the consequences for foreign relations, Thailand has yet to confirm their nationality and are allowing the Turkish consulate to meet with them.

“In the 14 provinces in the South this is the first time that we found this type of group. Right now we can’t really say whether they are Uighurs or not,” Songkhla Immigration Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot said.

The Uighurs, who speak a Turkic dialect, are reportedly able to communicate with the Turkish officials.

“Like in Thailand, in Turkey there are different dialects from region to region, so we can communicate in Turkish basically. And that’s all I can say,” Ahmet Akay, first councillor of the Turkish Embassy said.

However, human rights advocates are more vocal, saying the Uighurs’ fear of identification and repatriation to China is due to real fear.

“Those Uighurs who have been forced back from Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia previously disappear into the equivalent of a black hole, where information about them becomes very difficult to ascertain,” Robertson said.

Advocates are afraid Chinese authorities will push for their return.

“China has access to them, and we are very worried that this group is at threat for forced return to China,” Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, warned.

While Thailand hasn’t joined the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has signed the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which forbids governments from returning people to situations where they may be tortured.

“The Uighurs fleeing China are at risk of torture and disappearance if they are returned,” Sukumarin said.

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Horrors continue after fleeing home for world’s ‘most persecuted people’

Thai authorities transport Rohingya to detention centers/ February 2014/ Photo Courtesy of Abdul Kalam

Thai authorities transport Rohingya to detention centers/ February 2014/ Photo Courtesy of Abdul Kalam

9 March 2014 (Coconuts Media) — Over time Maha Min Gyi has watched his family members and friends and acquaintances disappear. More than he says he can count.

Some have vanished into prisons, some fell victim to human traffickers, while others simply drowned at sea.

“The situation is so bad. Some people have died in the sea and others in the brokers’ camps,” said the said the 35-year-old Muslim from the Rakhine state of Myanmar who lives in Bangkok.

“The culprits are human traffickers,” he added angrily.

Scores of Maha Min’s friends and community members from his hometown of Sittwe have tried to flee the ongoing conflict during the past two years only to wind up locked up in Thai immigration centers or in the grips of human traffickers in the south of the country.

In 2012, two waves of riots in June and October broke between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar led to widespread violence, looting, burning of homes and physical clashes involving Buddhists, Muslims and local police. Hundreds have died and 143,000 people have fled their homes in fear since October 2012. In the aftermath, Rohingya who fled the violence are banned from returning to home. Instead they’re kept in military-guarded camps, prompting thousands to escape the country by boat each sailing season.

Since the beginning, the violence has been tidily written off as “inter-communal violence,” which blames the violence on tension between the Rohingya and their Rakhine Buddhist neighbours.

But in fact the root causes of the conflict are embedded in official Myanmar government policies which have oppressed and disenfrenchized Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for decades, according to a Feb. 25 report from Fortify Rights International, a US-based non-profit focusing on the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

Despite living in Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya are not included in Myanmar’s list of 135 national races, determined by the constitution in 1974, and cannot access citizenship to Myanmar under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

“The entire population has struggled for many years under military rule, and tensions have persisted over generations,’ said Matt Smith, the director of Fortify Rights and co-author of the report. “To stabilize Rakhine State, first oppressive policies must be abolished.”

Meanwhile Thai immigration officials continue to crack down on Rohingya refugees disembarking from boats in southern Thailand. But human rights activists say that punitive legal measures taken against Rohingya seeking a safe place to go will not staunch the flow of people; it will just increase the exploitation and suffering of a group that has already been persecuted for decades.

“There is more of a push factor than a pull factor. As long as the situation is bad for Rohingya [in Myanmar] migration flows [to Thailand] are not going to end,” said Amal de Chickera, the head of Statelessness and Nationality Projects at Equal Rights Trust (ERT), a human rights and legal advocacy NGO headquartered in the UK, and co-author of another Rohingya reportreleased last month.

As anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rage in Myanmar, Rohingya families arriving in Thailand are split up by authorities, with men kept in detention cells and women and children sent to shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS), exacerbating risks of trafficking. Only political pressure on this year’s chairman of the eight-member political and economic bloc, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to cease abusing Rohingya, will stem the exodus, say human rights advocates.

But addressing the issue is difficult, as it struggles to be heard in Thailand.

Two Phuket reporters who have written about the abuse and trafficking of Rohingya were recently charged by the Royal Thai Navy of violating the Computer Crimes Act for publishing information taken from a Reuters report.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of Phuketwan will find out tomorrow whether they’ll be prosecuted, they said in an FCCT discussion titled “Silencing the Media over Rohingya Abuses.“

Thailand’s “split-policy personality” endangers Rohingya

The latest wave of local police violence against the Rohingya in southern Maungdaw township in mid-January resulted in dozens of deaths of local villagers.

“This has caused a new spasm of fear in Rohingya communities and contributes to the increased desire of persons to flee on boats if they can find a way and can afford it,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Yet while Thailand has permitted Burmese refugees from other ethnic minority groups to take refuge in nine camps along Thailand’s 1,800 km Thai-Myanmar border since the 1980s, Rohingyas are either detained, pushed back to sea or informally sold to human smuggling rings.

“We have a dual track system for Rohingya and Burmese in Thailand. There needs to be policy coherence and cohesion,” advised Vitit Muntabhorn, a national human rights expert and law professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The Thai government neither allows Rohingya to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nor offers temporary asylum.

“Very few want stay in Thailand,” said Abdul Kalam, the president of the Rohingya National Association in Thailand. “We face problems for not having documents, so many try to go on to Malaysia.”

While it is uncertain how many have attempted to move on to Malaysia from Thailand, roughly 6,000 have arrived on Thai soil since October 2012, yet only 700 are still in detention, according to Kalam.

Attempts to obtain comment from the Thai Immigration Bureau were unsuccessful, as someone twice hung up calls placed to a spokesperson.

Dmitrina Petrova, executive director of Equal Rights Trust, said traffickers work both sides of the Malay-Thai border.

“Human trafficking is a money-making machine,” Petrova said. Traffickers there might transport Rohingya into Malaysia where they can find work. Coming the other way, they may kidnap undocumented Rohingya from Malaysia and bring them to the Thai border to extort money from them.

Of the 50,000 undocumented Rohingya in Malaysia, many “are routinely arrested, sent through the Thai border, and traffickers [demand bribes] from their poor families who work as irregular migrants in Malaysia,” according to Petrova.

 

Families split up

Another major issue affecting Rohingya is that in the chaos of the conflict and trying to find safer ground, families are split up and divided by borders, without communication with their loved ones.

“Some Rohingya in Malaysia try to bring their families from Rakhine state through Thailand [as a transit place] but most never reach there,” said Kalam, 53, who himself left behind a family in Rakhine state.

“I do not know how are my daughter and first wife back in Myanmar,” he said. “I have not been able to contact them for a long time now,” he said, staring at his hands.

Maha Min has also not seen his father in more than four years.

His father, a prominent Muslim leader in Rakhine state, set up 14 schools for displaced Muslim children in Sittwe between September 2012 and June 2013, then was imprisoned for allegedly fomenting inter-communal violence in July last year.

“He is now in prison, facing six charges against him,” Maha Min said unhappily.

Human rights activists in Thailand also say Thai policies of separating families in detention puts women and children at higher risk of trafficking and abuse when they are held in shelters hundreds of kilometres away from their husbands and fathers.

“So many Rohingya women have been raped,” said Kalam, showing Coconuts two photos of young women he said were abused by brokers.

“If we are going to stay on this dual track, at least let families stay together,” Muntabhorn urged.

Renewed call for Rohingya acceptance in Myanmar

While protecting Rohingya from human rights violations in Thailand and Malaysia is critical, addressing the root causes requires dismantling racism and discrimination in Myanmar, according to analysts.

Some ethnic minorities— who themselves have suffered extensively from human rights abuses perpetrated by the military (controlled by the Burman majority ethnic group)— have expressed discriminatory feelings against the Rohingya.

“There is no doubt that inside the country, the level of societal prejudice is the highest possible,” Petrova said, explaining that a consequence of oppression is its internalization.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the former champion of human rights in Myanmar and current chairwoman of the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD) has remained silent on the issue of Rohingya.

“It is not a simple binary between the oppressor and the oppressed. [In a system where] it is acceptable that some people are below others, people derive dignity from not being the on the lowest level of society,” Petrova noted.

While the human rights of ethnic minorities is a prime topic of Myanmar’s peace process since the 2010 elections, abuses against the Rohingya are seen as a separate issue.

“The [government] is willing to accept [other ethnic minorities, such as] the Kachin, Karen, and Chin. But for them, the Rohingya, particularly Muslim people, it is a totally different situation,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar.

While ASEAN is the main forum for regional cooperation, any pressure from this route has thus far been unsuccessful, say advocates.

“States with significant Rohingya populations, such as Thailand, have to continue to use diplomatic channels to put pressure on Myanmar to get its act together,” Amal de Chickera said.

As a regional problem the issue will take more than Thailand’s efforts to solve, Petrova concluded.

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Abdul Kalam wants to be resettled

Rohingya refugee Abdul Kalam, 53, has been waiting for resettlement for more than two decades/ Dana MacLean 2013

“Hell is real for the Rohingyas in Thailand”

BANGKOK, 28 February 2014 (IRIN) – Abdul Kalam, 53, a Rohingya from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, arrived in Thailand more than 30 years ago, after escaping forced labour in his home village of Nalywah. “I know I am not safe here. I worry a lot about it. I have seen too many people die in detention or in human trafficking camps,” said Kalam, who is well known within the Rohingya community and is the current president of Thailand’s Rohingya National Organization, which campaigns for the rights of boat people who have arrived in the country over the past decade.

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Riziki fled her Central African village with her 1-year-old boy after soldiers kidnapped, abused and raped her. They were looking for her husband. Now she lives among Bangkok's population of "invisible refugees.

Riziki fled her Central African village with her 1-year-old boy after soldiers kidnapped, abused and raped her. They were looking for her husband. Now she lives among Bangkok’s population of “invisible refugees.

They escaped horrors at home, now Bangkok’s ‘invisible refugees’ struggle to survive

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Riziki fled her Central African village with her 1-year-old boy after soldiers kidnapped, abused and raped her. They were looking for her husband. Now she lives among Bangkok’s population of “invisible refugees.”

It started soon after her husband vanished about one year ago. A few days after the father of her baby son disappeared, eight soldiers came to Riziki’s home.

Despite her fervent protests that he was not a rebel, the soldiers kidnapped the woman, placed her in a blindfold and dragged her out to an isolated house in the forest tens of kilometers away from her village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“They shouted, ‘If you keep crying, I am going to kill you!’” she whispered, wiping a tear from her eye. When she could not tell them where her husband had gone, they beat her, and they raped her.

Those days of rape and abuse were the start of a harrowing flight from her central African home on a journey which eventually brought Riziki, now 32, into the ranks of thousands of “invisible refugees” living off the radar in Bangkok.

Riziki is now one of the nearly 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand, a nation which does not recognize refugee status and considers all to be illegal migrants subject to deportation.

Of the 96,403 estimated to be in Thailand as of mid-2013, according to the United Nations, more than 91,000 are Burmese refugees on the border. Thirty or so other nationalities comprise the remaining 5,400 or so, including Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Vietnamese ethnic minorities such as the Hmong, as well as Africans such as Somalians and Congolese.

Refugee advocates say the number of those living “invisibly” in Bangkok are probably higher then their estimates, but asylum seekers are often not aware of their international rights to protection, and slip under the radar out of fear of arrest and detention.

About 4,000 non-Myanmar refugees have applied for recognition and assistance with the UN Refugee Agency, but consensus holds that number vastly underestimates Bangkok’s invisible refugee population.

“When police officers meet refugees on the street, the common practice is to arrest them and extort them for whatever they can get in exchange for release,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Bangkok-based Asia division.

African refugees are at particular risk of harassment and discrimination from the Thai community, according to Asylum Access Thailand, an international NGO headquartered in San Francisco that provides legal aid to an estimated 100,000 refugees worldwide per year.

Asylum seekers who are aware of the UN process and pay traffickers to bring them to safety are often shocked at the minimal international assistance and protection they are provided upon arrival.

“Many refugees were unaware how difficult conditions would be in Thailand before they came, often having been misled by agents or people-smugglers,” Asylum Access notes.
Riziki, who did not want to use her real name because of her legal status, was kidnapped from her home in South Kivu, an eastern province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) bordering on Burundi and Rwanda.

Her husband belonged to a tribe known as the Congolese Tutsis, who were suspected by the government of being part of an armed faction which has rebelled time and again against since 1997, after they were stripped of citizenship.

Much suspicion and animosity divides the communities of South Kivu, as tribal tensions persist between the Banyamulenge tribe of her husband’s family and supporters of the Hutu militia which instigated the ethnic cleansing of Tutsis in Rwanda 20 years ago.

Riziki was abused for two days by the men who abducted her. After that, she was moved to a second house, where drunken men armed with machetes beat, interrogated and raped her again.

Early the next morning, just as dawn was breaking, she escaped, her clothes torn and bloody. “A passing car found me on the road. He brought me to the hospital,” she said. “They gave me medicine.”

Just four days later, Riziki walked out of the hospital only to be abducted by soldiers yet again as she walked down the street. They transported her against her will to another of their camps.

“Finally I was able to call my sister, and she agreed to give them USD1,000 to let me go,” Riziki said.

It was the beginning of her journey as a refugee.

The next afternoon she was smuggled in the back of a van into Kenya where she was reunited with her 1-year-old son, Harold, who had been cared for by a neighbor, at the Burundian border. She also regained her Congolese passport then moved through Burundi. [PHOTO]

On the Jan. 4, 2013, she flew to Bangkok.

Several reasons see many end up in Thailand. It’s not difficult to obtain a tourist visa, and the cost of living is accessible to those arriving with little money. But even more so, Thailand remains both a hub and destination for human smuggling and its attendant infrastructure.

The process to obtain refugee status recognition and resettlement is lengthy — upward of three years — during which time “children are regrettably without appropriate education, and refugees are without access to stable livelihoods, health care and suitable housing,” said Junita Calder, the Asia Pacific Advocacy officer for Jesuit Refugee Service, an international humanitarian NGO that provides temporary aid to recently arrived refugees.

Eleven months ago, not long before more than 1,000 would die in a chemical weapons attack in his hometown of Homs, Tawfiq escaped the Syrian civil war through Beirut and ultimately to Bangkok. The 34-year-old fled with his wife Shala and 7-year-old son, Abbas, after Tawfiq was tortured inside a secret Damascus jail and his business destroyed by bombs.

While the family was relieved to escape Syria alive, they feel frustrated with the speed of UN bureaucracy. “Abbas has not been vaccinated in two years,” Shala said. “And what will he do without an education?”

While Thai law permits all children to attend school, language barriers and cultural differences make this difficult, according to JRS.

For Riziki, that means resettling into a new home before Harold gets much older.

“I am glad Harold is only 2 years now, he is only starting to learn the alphabet,” Riziki said.

Unable to work

Refugees in Thailand are not legally allowed to work and often live for months without sufficient resources to meet all of their needs. “Sometimes we don’t know where our next meal will come from,” Riziki said with a frown. “We just go day-by-day.”

Riziki panicked last month when her temporary housing assistance from the Jesuits ended.

“I was so scared, I did not know what I was going to do, how I would live,” she said. Fortunately her church offered to pay her rent and provide dry rice and beans for meals.

Living that close to the bone is how many survive, according to JRS. They fled horrors to scrape by on limited financial assistance from the UNHCR, NGOs and faith-based groups, but the numbers of people displaced by the world’s conflicts and disasters far exceed the resources available.

“The majority have fled their home countries quickly and arrive with little in their pockets,” Calder said. “We try to help them as much as we can.”

But similar to many the thousands of other refugees struggling to survive in Bangkok, Riziki wishes she could work.

While some refugees work in the informal economy, they suffer  “increased risks of exploitation and abuse, and of coming into contact with the authorities,” explained Calder.

Refugees have a right to work, according to international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention has been signed by 144 countries worldwide. Thailand is not one of them.

In fear of detention

Under Thai law, all refugees and asylum seekers are considered illegal migrants, even those which have gained UN recognition. “Thai law does not recognize being a [refugee] as a legal status in the country, meaning that even if a person is acknowledged by UNHCR as having a legitimate claim to protection, the Thai government won’t provide it,” said Human Rights Watch’s Robertson.

Part of the The Thai government’s strict stance on “irregular migration” reflects a wariness of immigration influxes that comes with being a relatively stable economic power in a less certain region.

As a coastal country sandwiched between lesser-developed Laos and Cambodia, Thailand is also neighbored by conflict-prone Myanmar where 143,000 people have been displaced by armed conflicts in Kachin and Rakhine states since 2011.

“If refugees are caught by immigration officials, it is often “a one-way ticket to indefinite detention … until the refugee is permitted to resettle,” Robertson explained.

Dozens of refugees and asylum seekers, including children as young as two years old, are locked up in a quiet neighborhood near the popular evening watering holes of Sathon Road and Soi Ngam Duphli at the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they could not comment in time for this article’s publication as its office is currently closed due to the ongoing protests.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has publicly stated support for the humanitarian asylum of the 77,765 Burmese refugees residing in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, however she’s remained silent on the issue of urban refugees, who continue to fear imprisonment for themselves and their families.

“We think it is tough outside here, but it would be harder inside the detention center, especially for the children,” Tawfiq said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) runs a play center for detained children 3- to 15-years-old, but children’s advocates say it is not enough.

“Regardless of the conditions in which they are kept, detention has a profound and negative impact on children,” reports the International Detention Coalition, an umbrella network of more than 250 NGOs worldwide campaigning against the detention of children, in a 2012 study.

The UNHCR says refugee numbers will rise around the world as conflicts continue or deepen in places such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where  4.5 million, 43,000 and 232,000 people have been displaced, respectively.

With the influx of invisible refugees unlikely to decline, advocates for refugees have asked Thai officials to adopt more humane policies.

“The international community should be demanding that Thailand cease detaining asylum seekers in the UNHCR application process, and recognized refugees, and immediately release all those who are currently in detention,” Robertson said.

For individuals such as Riziki, who never wanted to leave her home until fear of further violence and rape drove her out, there are no demands for special treatment.

“We just want to live, to work, and to be safe,” she said.

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New low for Indonesian-Australian people smuggling cooperation

BANGKOK, 15 January 2014 (IRIN) – Levels of cooperation on people smuggling between Indonesia and Australia have sunk to a new low following claims by Jakarta that the Australian Navy turned back a boatload of asylum seekers on 19 December 2013, and another on 7 January, without first notifying them, officials say.