Thailand: Serving urban refugees amid COVID-19

11 October 2020|Thailand Advocacy and Communications Officer

COVID-19 temperature screening in front of JRS building in Thailand.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the spread of Coronavirus(COVID-19) as a pandemic on 11 March 2020, prompting an increase in border restrictions throughout the kingdom. This led to a significantly lower number of new arrivals in Thailand for March and April of 2020. After the Royal Thai Government (RTG) announced border lockdowns on 21 March 2020, under the “Order of the Centre for the Administration of the Situation due to the Outbreak of the Communicable Disease Coronavirus (COVID-19)”, a handful of individuals were able to enter Thailand by using illegal smuggling routes through land borders. Upon the advise of the Council of Ministers, the Prime Minister declared an emergency situation in all areas of the Kingdom of Thailand, taking effect from May 1st to May 31s, directly affecting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in their ability to work or travel.

Under the Department of Disease Control report by 30 June 2020, there were 3,255 confirmed cases, 3,105 confirmed recovered cases, and 58 case confirmed deaths. The UN country team and CSO diligently advocated for the vulnerable population to receive testing, treatment, health preparedness, a proper response system, and non-discriminated access to public hospitals as nationals receive. The partners also advocate for urban refugees and asylum seekers. Two of the recovered cases were refugees – Pakistani and Iranian. Both of them received treatment and fully recovered after they self-quarantined for 14 days.

Most of the organizations working directly with refugees and asylum seekers established a sub-protection working group to assist and focus on assisting those affected by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation. During this period, the UNHCR Reception was closed, whereby contact was only done by phone or email. The UNHCR continued to collect registration requests from the reception box outside the UNHCR Reception once a week. Remote registrations and Refugee Status Determine Standard of Procedure (RSD-SOP) were put in place, prioritizing the interviews of vulnerable individuals. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic also affected the work setting for many organizations. The regular work setting changed from office-based to work from home. All meetings were conducted online via various meeting applications. Organizations that operate through implementation programs were forced to change their working platforms and operate by remote implementation. For example, COERR/BRC provided counseling via telephone, and organized online courses for Good Shepherd students in Level 3 or 4. In May, they provided assistance by appointment only. JRS conducted case assessment and counseling sessions via telephone, and transferred financial assistance to landlords, while monitoring receiving of the funds. IOM visited all bailed families to provide packages including food, NFIs, hygiene kits, fabric masks, and hand sanitizer/gel. AAT distributed the masks to asylum seekers and refugees in the community.

Starting the height of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic and Working From Home Period, the communication, collaboration and referrals with partners organizations and Urban Refugee Project (URP) became closer and tighten. Staff communicated closer to check the CBI status with BRC, or to refer medical reimbursement to Tzu Chi via emails. When there was a gap in CBI process, BRC staff also referred some vulnerable cases to JRS. When the amount of CBI check got higher, BRC sent the CBI approved list to URP team for our information. Several homeless cases were refereed to JRS by UNHCR and BRC for accommodation arraignment. Such clients needed rooms because of domestic violence or being evicted by the landlord due to unpaid bills.

In the first week of March, URP distributed masks to visitors, provided alcohol and sanitizing gel at the reception, common areas and workplace stations. The workplace was also cleaned with disinfectant two times a day and the Reception team conducted information and awareness sessions to daily visitors regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) prevention and mitigation measures. All JRS staff and visitors had one entry point in order for the security guard to check the body temperatures of everyone who goes in and out of the JRS building. Those who had a body temperature of 37.5 degrees and above are separated from the rest for precautionary measures. However, since this started, JRS did not find anyone who had symptoms of fever. JRS also applied physical distancing measures. Clients who visit JRS had to sit at least one (1) meter away from others.

JRS also started to work remotely since 23 March 2020 to reduce the risk of all staff and clients getting infected from Coronavirus (COVID-19). URP has set a work plan from March 23 to May31 to adapt to work-from-home arrangements. Team meetings and regular communications still continue using e-mail, Line application, and Microsoft teams to ensure the progress of the work and the safety of everyone. JRS is still available to serve clients via phone call or online communication platforms.

For the payment of the assistance, when it comes to rents, URP pays the landlords directly to their bank account. For food and transportation, URP has asked the support of landlords to pay the assistance through them. Some landlords agreed to this arrangement, others did not, and URP continues to contact others. Some payments have been made and these developments are updated by the URP team in the database. In case there is a need, the second option for URP is to deliver in person the financial assistance to asylum seekers and refugees whose landlords do not agree to a bank transfer. Currently, URP is drafting strict safety protocols for financial assistance in person and are consulting health experts to ensure no one is put in danger. For medical, URP coordinates with all the organizations. So far URP has not received any referral from organizations for request to support asylum seekers or refugees with Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Under Psychosocial Counseling, the Mental Health Psychosocial Support unit is composed of two counselors, a Thai and a Malaysian, two psychosocial community assistants, a Vietnamese (Khmer speaking) and a Pakistani (Urdu, Punjabi speaking). The counselors continued their counseling sessions via phone when they were working at their home.  In June, the psychosocial counselors provided training on coping with stress, fear, and worry during pandemic & the mindful self-compassion to both psychosocial community assistants in order for them to deliver online outreach to the community. The psychosocial community assistants conducted 24 online outreach activities via Line and WhatsApp application from June to September 2020 and conducted 9 community outreach from July to August 2020, whereas the psychosocial counselor conducted two support groups (one office based and one community based) in September 2020.

Since April, the counselors have provided 104 individual counseling via phone, while 80 sessions were conducted at JRS from June to September 2020. In addition, the counselor conducted 3 IDC visit in August, 3 hospital visit and 5 house counseling were conducted from August-September”

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