A Myanmar political fugitive, newly arrived in Thailand as a refugee—usually alone, short of money, with few contacts, and generally unwanted by the Thais—faces a profoundly daunting and uncertain future. Fortunately, on the Thai side of the border is a significant community of sympathetic ex-patriot Burmese who will help on this next stretch of the journey. They will often take responsibility for settling refugees into a safe house and teaching them the dos and don’ts of survival in exile.
Another option is to seek protection in a UN- or INGO-supported refugee camp. But these camps are typically overcrowded and the living conditions often appalling. Once in a camp there is little hope of proceeding further, as evidenced by the tens of thousands who have languished in them for years, or for decades. For some of the younger refugees, a camp is the only home they have ever known, behind fences topped with barbed wire. If democracy is ever restored in Myanmar, the inmates might go home, but for now there is nowhere else for them to go.
Thailand is not, nor has it ever been, a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) policy that provides certain safeguards for those seeking refugee status. As a 2016 UNHCR report entitled “Global Strategy Beyond Detention” explains, “Refugees and asylum-seekers may be treated as illegal aliens unless they have a valid visa issued pursuant to the Thai Immigration Act. Absent a valid visa, they may be subject to arrest, prosecution and detention on immigration charges, irrespective of their status with the UNHCR.” Even if certified by the UNHCR, there is no guarantee that a refugee in Thailand will be safe from arrest or deportation. Thailand, like Myanmar, is governed by a self-appointed military regime—birds of a feather.
Given their lack of legal status, one of the first things that refugees need to acquire is a “police card,” which costs anywhere from US$4 to $30, and must be renewed monthly. Whatever minimal protection that such a card affords is strictly at the local level; it’s of no use beyond the boundary of the local police precinct. But should refugees be stopped by police, it might protect them from incarceration. However, since Thai authorities are not bound by the 1951 Refugee Convention, local police are free to adjust the rules at their discretion. Having a card is not a legal requirement, but is, in Mae Sot, an enterprise that supplements the income of police officials. Higher-ups at the provincial level are, no doubt, aware of this scam and, while denying that it exists, probably share in the proceeds.
I heard about two Burmese exiles in Thailand who, like hundreds of others, were waiting to have their application for refugee status approved by the UNHCR. On the anniversary of their wedding day, as is the custom in much of Burma, they wanted to offer a donation for the benefit of others less fortunate. They chose for that purpose a nearby refugee camp outside of Mae Sot, which was beyond the local protection of their police cards. Imprudently, they left their safe house and drove off with an obliging friend who had a car. As they neared their destination, they were stopped by police who asked to see their visas, which they didn’t have. Instead, they presented their police cards. The officers quickly pointed out that their cards were not legal in the area they now were. They were taken not to a police station, but to a police housing compound. There the policemen attempted to extort from each of them “fines” of 6,000 Thai baht, nearly US$190. Their driver, a Burmese man who had a legal Thai residency permit, negotiated a deal on their behalf: 6,000 baht for both and they were free to go.
Once a Burmese exile has found a temporary shelter in Thailand, the next stop on the Underground Railroad is an application to the UNHCR to be recognized as an official refugee. This process is excruciatingly long and emotionally draining for those who have been forced to abandon everything, including family, friends and possessions, and flee for their lives. The process takes at least six months, sometimes more than a year.
Initial involvement with the UNHCR consists of two or three interviews, usually conducted through an interpreter. But given the many and diverse languages spoken in Myanmar, the interpreters are frequently incapable of understanding the dialect or native language of the applicant. The interviewees, usually too shy and often too traumatized to speak up, are left to answer questions that they have not properly understood. One wrong answer, however, can result in an application being rejected, and deportation back to Burma becomes a not impossible result.
Along with the initial interviews come security checks. The exiles, likely having escaped Myanmar with nothing but a backpack, and with a history of active political resistance, fear that they might not be accepted as legitimate refugees. They have little understanding of the reasons for some of the questions and imagine that a wrong answer will mark them as criminals in the eyes of their interrogators.