Thailand: Sri Lankan refugees left languishing in Bangkok

23 July 2010|Oliver White, JRS Asia Pacific Regional Advocacy and Communication Officer

Even recognized, refugees risk being arrested and held in detention. For the police, the UN document is not a visa.

Bangkok, 23 July 2010 – Nathan and his family are recognised refugees. They fled Sri Lanka after Nathan was kidnapped and held for ransom by an armed group. Now residing in Thailand, Nathan and his family face a daily struggle for survival in a country that refuses to acknowledge their status as refugees; leaving them exposed to the risks of arrest, indefinite detention and removal to a country where their lives or freedoms would be threatened.

“The document of UNHCR [UN refugee agency] recognises us as refugees, but if we give it to the police we can be arrested because it is not a visa. When my children go to school I am always scared they will be arrested”.

Back in Sri Lanka Nathan and his family led an active life assisting others displaced by conflict.

“In Sri Lanka I was helping the refugees by showing them screen-printing” recounts Nathan, adding “my wife worked as a counsellor for an NGO. Now it is Nathan and his family who need assistance.

“We were helping refugees in Sri Lanka, and now in Thailand we are refugees”, says Nathan sadly. Nathan and his family are dependent on others for their daily needs.

“Usually children depend on their parents so they can fulfil their needs and desires, or if they are old then the children will look after the parents, but here we all are, dependent on an NGO to give us food, books, clothes, and medicine”.

Nathan and his family would like to work and be self-sufficient.

“Here we are unable to work hard and achieve something”.

The inability to work and provide for his family causes Nathan great distress.

“We are told to go to a psychologist if we have any mental problems”.

However, for Nathan this is not a solution. Nathan insists the ability to work would reduce much of the mental anguish in their community.

“They should send us to go to another country to live freely or let us be free here”.

As urban refugees in Bangkok, Nathan and his family are forced to lead a life of poverty and dependence.

“The word refugee is a very hard word to say; to say that we are refugees. When seeing the people in Thailand living a better life we just want to be like them. We have not lived a life like that for four years. We want to live like that so we can take care of our kids and fulfil their needs and desires”.

Nathan and his family, like many other urban refugees and asylum seekers in Bangkok, face restricted access to basic services.

“In Sri Lanka if I get sick I would go to hospital and take medicine. But here in Thailand as long as we are refugees we have to go to an NGO and let them know we are really sick and then they will give us a form to go to a hospital. If we were really sick and went to hospital first they would not give us money”.

Nathan admits that this constant deferring to an NGO over simple matters like receiving medical assistance is taking its toll.

The family’s application for resettlement in the US was recently rejected. Nathan describes the problem as political.

“Out of all the countries that want to resettle people, none want to resettle Sri Lankans because they think we are LTTE [ethnic Tamil insurgent group]”.

Nathan’s plea to the international community is simple, “our request is please consider us as refugees, not Tamil Tigers”.

Nathan and his family are acutely aware that the chances of resettlement are slim. However, what they insist upon is the right to legally work and rebuild their lives.

“We are not necessarily insisting UNHCR resettle us in a western country. We can live anywhere except Sri Lanka. Even if they let us live legally in Thailand, then this is ok. We can work hard for ourselves”.

Nathan and his family request that the government of Thailand reconsider the status of refugees and asylum seekers and take measures that foster their independence and self-sufficiency.

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