Asylum protection officer / ‘In Thailand we treat refugees like tourists’

By: Janelle Retka - Photography by: Cory Wright - Posted on: November 19, 2018 | Featured

Waitsara Rungthong has worked as a protection officer in Thailand since 2015, assisting refugees who have fled there as they await resettlement in another country. She shared some of the nuances and challenges of her job at the Centre for Asylum Protection legal aid organisation

Waitsara Rungthong says she feels political pressure in her work as a protection officer for the legal aid organisation Centre for Asylum Protection Photo: Cory Wright

Tell us about your position and the agency you work for…
The Centre for Asylum Protection is a legal clinic under the Thai foundation called People Serving People Foundation. In the legal clinic, we have four to five lawyers, but I’m the only protection officer. [Some refugees] live in camps. For Thailand, we have camps along the Thai-Burma border. But [in Thailand], the main populations are the urban refugees, which are people who live in the city, not in a camp. So these people come to seek asylum in Thailand through UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees]. The legal clinic provides assistance like legal advice, represents them to UNHCR, writes the legal brief or helps them to write their statement [when applying for third-country resettlement].

What does a protection officer do?
It’s mostly about dealing with the situation of [refugees’] life within Thailand… Thailand is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. So Thailand doesn’t recognise the UNHCR card [which labels foreigners as approved refugees], which means even though the POC – person of concern, the people who seek asylum at UNHCR – even though they have a UNHCR card, if they don’t have a valid visa, that’s seen in Thailand as them being illegal… These people cannot have access to hospitals, people have difficulties taking their children to school, [they have] arrest issues, sometimes relocation again for their security concern… For the protection process, it involves all of the processes since they came to Thailand until they leave the country again.

Are there laws that make your job of protecting asylum seekers difficult?
Yeah. In Thailand we don’t have a domestic law to protect refugees specifically, [so] it’s quite difficult to find the legal basis to help them sometimes. For example, in Thailand, with all the foreigners in the country or all the non-Thai people, basically the law that will apply to them is the immigration act. It doesn’t matter if they’re a migrant worker, they’re a tourist, they’re a refugee. So it is difficult because the nature of the refugees in Thailand are different from the tourists or people who come to travel in Thailand… [But with that act,] when they find that this person entered the country illegally or stayed here illegally, the authorities can deport the person back… I can say for some countries, like China, Cambodia or Vietnam, sometimes Thailand has a good relationship with the government of this country, so sometimes [arrest and deportation] happens because of the pressure or because of the request of the foreign government… So, I would say we don’t have adequate domestic law to protect the refugee, which is quite difficult.

Which communities do you work with most?
The majority of the urban refugees are now the Pakistani people, and we have a lot of people from Vietnam and Cambodia… In Thailand, there are two legal aid organisations that provide legal assistance to urban refugees. One is CAP, Centre for Asylum Protection, which is us, and another one is Asylum Access Thailand. In the past, the donor who funds the programme used to work closely with the Vietnamese community and also some Khmer Krom people from Vietnam, but then they come to Cambodia. So I would say many people who contact us are from Vietnam and from Cambodia. But we do have many Pakistani [clients] as well.

Do you experience any political pressure in your work?
I think so. I kind of feel like doing the protection work is like – we need to be very, very careful… We don’t want to be on the opposite side of the officer, like immigration or the police, because we need to work with them [in advocating for refugee rights]… [But] many refugees need to run away from the police, they need to keep themselves from the Thai authorities. But at the same time, the authorities will come to talk to us and ask, “What’s going on? How about these people? Do you know where they are?”… And when we meet with the government, when we want to discuss with them, we say, “Okay, can you try to find a solution or can you try to find a way to protect the refugee?” And they ask for information, but then we feel like, okay, how can I do this? If we provide everything, then you don’t know the safety of your client, right?

Why is your work important to Thailand and Southeast Asia?
[In Thailand,] we don’t have the right perspective of the refugees… We treat them like the same as [tourists and other visitors, expecting paperwork and visas that refugees can’t obtain while fleeing their country]… I think in our role, we… do advocacy work with our partner, with the Thai people, with the Thai government, to explain to them that we need to treat these people differently from the migrant worker or from people who came here to do the criminal stuff. Because these people are not criminals… They basically have persecution… It’s not like they can go back home anytime. And I think we need to have this mindset that they cannot return… I think we will then think of a way that we can treat them better, such as give them access to education, give them access to healthcare, allow them to work so they can live as a normal person.