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No way out for Palestinian refugees trapped in Thailand

Refugees twice over, Palestinians in Thailand are in a state of panic, as they fear unjust arrest at the hands of Thai Authorities and possible indefinite detainment

Imagine living life as a two time refugee, having been expelled from one country, to eventually finding yourself having to flee war in the next. For Palestinian refugees in Thailand, the story of persecution does not end here.

Thousands of Palestinians who had previously been living as refugees in Syria fled the country following the outbreak of war in 2011. Having escaped to bordering countries, hundreds then fled to Thailand, due to the ease with which they could obtain a visa to travel there.

Palestinians arrived in Thailand hoping to adopt the country as their new home. For a short duration of time, Thailand provided the safe haven from war that the newly settled refugees had been seeking, but in 2017 this all began to change.

On 23 June 2017, the Royal Ordinance on Foreign Workers Act was implemented in Thailand which resulted in a crackdown on “migrant workers”. Between the period of 29 June and 27 November, approximately 150,000 migrant workers from Myanmar alone were said to have fled to evade prosecution. For most Palestinian refugees, however, fleeing was never an option.

Just over a month ago, Thai Authorities became particularly harsh and upped their efforts to arrest Palestinian refugees. Activists released a list of the names of 39 Palestinians held in Thai detention, the rest refused to be named due to fear of backlash. Included in the list were children ranging from 5-13 years of age.

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To this date, approximately 80 Palestinian refugees have been hunted down by Thai authorities, processed through local jails and then lumped into overcrowded detention centres. One of the detention centres is the Suan Phlu IDC (Immigration Detention Centre) in Bangkok which is notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, as there is a lack of medical assistance, excessive overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions.

Ahmed Abed Al-Rahman is a Palestinian-Syrian who has previously been detained at the Suan Phlu IDC. Ahmed describes the cells as being “heavily overcrowded”, claiming that “there can be up to 100 people packed into a single holding cell”. During the “check-in” period, detainees are held anywhere from six hours to a few days, inside a packed cell of around 70 people. Ahmed added that “upon arrival to the IDC, I was strip searched and was forced to sleep on the floor with only a metal can to rest my head on.”

Palestinians in Thailand who were previously living as refugees in Syria are documented and accepted as refugees by the UNHRC, but not by the Thai authorities.

According to a 2018 report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Thailand has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Thai authorities continued to treat asylum seekers, including those recognised by the United Nations as refugees, as illegal migrants subject to arrest and deportation.”

Local activists believe nine Palestinian child refugees are being held at the Suan Phlu IDC (Immigration Detention Centre) in Bangkok.

Entire families have been rounded up, arrested and transported in caged vehicles to local jails, or in other cases, directly to the IDC. When held in local jails, the refugees are incarcerated alongside convicted murderers and sex offenders. After facing local imprisonment, those arrested are eventually transferred to the IDC.

On 3 September, Amnesty sent a letter to the Thai minister of interior, stressing the implications of their recent crackdowns on Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. In the letter, the detention centres mentioned were the same as the ones in which Palestinian refugees are held.

Amnesty reported that “children held in these centres are particularly vulnerable to irreversible psychological and physical distress and human rights violations”, stressing that action has to be taken to prevent such violations of children’s rights.

Abo Amer, a 40-year-old Palestinian refugee living in Bangkok with his wife and three children (aged 1, 3 and 6), described his situation as “very painful”. Abo Amer expressed worry for his family:

I live in fear of me and my family being taken away, how will my children understand what is happening to them?

Loay Shihabi said “life here is terrible” when asked about the situation in Bangkok. The Palestinian refugee had no hope of finding a job. “I have no choice but to stay inside, if I attempt to work illegally and they find me, I will face detainment and will put my family at risk.”

Palestinian refugees held in Thai detention centres are now struggling to free themselves, but need passports and support from the UNHCR to do so. Their only way out is “resettlement”.

The UNHCR refuses to help the resettle Palestinian refugees living in Thailand, including those in detention. My repeated efforts to contact the organisation for comment received no response.

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Despite the lack of press coverage on this issue, the case was brought to the attention of various Palestinian media outlets, a few weeks ago. Online pleas and appeals were made to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, pressuring him to help end the suffering of women and children currently held in Thai prisons. According to Ma’an News Agency, Abbas “issued orders” to “follow up with the case of several Palestinian refugee women held in Thai jails”.

Although the issue has now been raised within the ranks of the PA, results are yet to materialise. Many Palestinians in Thailand have been applying for a PA passport but to no avail. Thirty-four-year-old Iyad Suleiman has spent seven months of his one-year detainment waiting for his passport application to be processed.

The number of Palestinians who are being arrested and transferred to detention centres has increased dramatically.

On 3 December, Thai authorities announced the arrests of 22 Palestinian refugees, along with two Somali refugees. This latest series of arrests followed a demonstration on 30 November in which approximately 60 Palestinian refugees gathered in front of the UNHCR compound in Bangkok. The protesters and their children held signs and announced their disgust at the UNHCR’s lack of action. Children held signs reading, “UNHCR is responsible for years of no education or care”. Prior to the large-scale arrest, five Palestinians were arrested.

If the inaction of the UNHCR and Palestinian Authority (PA) continue, the remaining more than 400 Palestinians who have not yet been incarcerated could be in danger leaving children in overcrowded detention cells with no future in sight.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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