Thailand: World Refugee Day in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre

25 June 2013|Dana MacLean

Refugees and asylum seekers wrote letters and drew pictures to express their feelings in the IDC. (Photo courtesy of JRS Asia Pacific).

Bangkok, 25 June 2013 – On 20 June 2013, JRS Thailand organised World Refugee Day events in the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok with speeches and performances by 120 refugees, asylum seekers and their families, in the semi-outdoor common activity room on the ground floor.

Edna*, a cheerful and enthusiastic asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, kicked off the events with an encouraging and compassionate welcoming speech.

“None of us ever planned to become a refugee. But refugee or not, God loves you,” she beamed at the enraptured audience of women, men, and children gathered in the courtyard.

“We must stay strong and remember that God has not forgotten about us. We can maintain hope that the Maker will do something new in our lives,” she added.

With limited access to the outside world, life in the IDC can be emotionally and mentally stressful for refugees who are uncertain about when they will be released and what future awaits them.

“It all depends on whether we can assist them to get recognized by UNHCR as refugees under the UN Refugee Convention and whether they are accepted by a resettlement country,” said Ginney Liu, the JRS IDC Legal Officer, who visits the detention centre twice a week to meet with asylum seekers in IDC.

“Thailand has not signed the international refugee convention.  I wish there was more we could do to help but anyone without valid visas are considered to be in the country illegally and can be arrested, regardless whether they are refugees,” she explained.

Maintaining hope from a cell

In the IDC women are separated from men, so children who enter with both of their parents are inevitably split up from one of them, depending on their gender and age. While children under the age of 12 can attend a small childcare centre supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) just outside the IDC four times per week for recreational activities, adult movement is limited to their cells and up to two times per week of exercise time in the concrete courtyard.

“But we sing in our rooms all the time,” said Edna, who is the room leader of one of the women’s cells. “People wonder why we are singing but it is how we hold onto hope and faith for the future,” she said.

World Refugee Day allowed families to unite temporarily, as they do for Family Day organized by JRS IDC once a month for three hours.

“Thank you for this chance to see our loved ones,” said Ahmed* a Pakistani refugee who has been detained, as have 14 other members of his family, including his elderly parents, for the past three months.

Finding rhythm in detention

A 14-year old Sri Lankan boy was the first performer with an energetic break-dance and an enthusiastic display of original moves, including what can only be described as a “t-shirt pulling” move.

Afterwards, amidst applause, he was showered with rose petals and offered a rose. Second up were five pre-adolescent girls from different Asian cultures who performed a Bollywood-style dance, complete with a small Vietnamese Hmong girl in front wearing a tutu and a fluffy pink halo whilst fluttering before the group. JRS distributed Barbie dolls and roses from the IDC officials for the girls. Next, a North Korean man belted out a song and dance, a Syrian man recited a prayer, and Vietnamese Hmong and Pakistani groups sang melodically.

Edna led the chorus for the popular Christian tune, “Oh Happy Day!” and with arms raised, everyone joyfully swayed to the music.

To conclude the ceremonies, a priest from the Catholic Organisation for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) gave a short sermon and  Edna thanked the IDC Superintendant and staff, the UN Refugee Agency, IOM teachers, the Catholic Fathers, and JRS for their assistance to refugees.

“A big thank you to all the people filled with love to sustain the refugees,” she said.

JRS then distributed a food basket with fruits and cookies, to all attendees.

“We were very happy to be able to organize this event and give refugees and asylum seekers space to come together to socialize, perform for one another, and share a good time,” said Wanrob Wararasdr, the Project Director for JRS in the IDC.

JRS would like to thank the UN Refugee Agency, the International Organisation for Migration, and the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Refugees for helping to organize the event. JRS would also like to thank the Superintendent and detention centre officials for allowing the ceremony to take place.

Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

·         For reasons of confidentiality and protection names used are not the real names of the refugees

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