Syrian refugees in Bangkok

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Syrian refugees in Bangkok

Alexi Demetriadi reports.


Bangkok street, Thailand. (Ahron de Leeuw under a Creative Commons Licence)

Many Syrians make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea; this is a direct, but expensive, route to the safety of Europe. But some have chosen a different route to escape the death and danger of Syria: they go to Thailand. But this route is dangerous too.

They think Bangkok, capital of Thailand, will be safe, and that they can ask for resettlement in America or Europe. But this choice is not safe. One refugee, Qusai, tells me that maybe it was better for him to cross the Mediterranean because, ‘If I’m dead, I’m dead. Here, I die slowly.’

The Thai British Embassy website says that ‘Thai’ means ‘Free’. So ‘Thailand’ means ‘Land of the Free’ or ‘Freeland’. But for some people, it is not free.

Thailand is famous for beaches, parties and British living abroad. People who go there on holiday do not usually think that the country does not really even have a democratic system. Democracy first started here more than 80 years ago, but it has come and gone since then.

In 1932, they ended the monarchy. Since then Thailand has had 12 successful coups d’état - more than any other country. The 12th was in May 2014. The Royal Thai Army General, Prayut Chan-o-cha, threw out the caretaker government after 6 months of political chaos.

After the latest coup, some personal liberties and democratic rights have been taken away. And refugees now have even fewer rights than before.

Qusai and Amjad are Syrian-Arabian refugees. They left Damascus and the Syrian civil war in 2012. They were refugees when they were born. Their grandfathers escaped from Palestine in 1948, after the Palestinian civil war, and resettled in Syria. They say that Syria was good to them. They had good lives and Qusai had a family there. They had rights and jobs were not difficult to find.

Then the civil war started in 2011. They had to escape Syria and get refugee status from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They didn’t go directly to Europe – this is more expensive and dangerous. Their group went to Thailand with tourist visas – it is easy to get these.

Soon they saw that Thailand is not safe. Amjad had a refugee certificate from the UN. But they soon arrested him – they said he was travelling with a fake passport. He went to court, and was sent to prison for 2 years. It was impossible to protest because a lawyer stole most of his money. Life in Thailand got worse and worse.

Qusai wanted resettlement. But after 3.5 years of living in Thailand this seems almost impossible.

They had interviews at the UNHCR in Bangkok after they arrived in Thailand. And interviews at the Canadian Embassy more than a year and half ago. But Qusai, his family and Amjad still have no idea if they will be able to start a new life in the West. ‘It’s a very long process,’ Qusai explains, ‘but no-one will answer us.’ Everyone knows that the US, Canada, Australia and Britain are very slow to decide who will get a ‘golden ticket’ to build a new life. But Sweden took a friend of Qusai and Amjad’s after only 3 months.

Qusai and Amjad have not heard anything from the Canadian Embassy. ‘Reject or accept is fine, I just want to know,’ says Amjad.

Qusai believes that the US won’t take a Palestinian-Syrian like himself for political reasons. And he thinks it is useless asking Britain: Britain ‘never takes refugees from here, never.’

This long waiting is very difficult for any refugee family. But the last 3 years has been worse for Qusai and his family because of the political situation. Qusai and his family of 4 live in a very small flat for one person. Bangkok is politically unstable and there is ‘a new fear every day’.

Qusai does not think much of the Thai government: ‘If they wanted to help us, why catch us and put us in jail?’ After the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in August this year, the police became worse with refugees. They arrested 24 Syrians living in the same apartment block - including children aged 2 and 5.

One night in late August police came to Qusai’s apartment block and told the Syrians: ‘Don’t worry, don’t be scared.’ But they were right to be scared. The police took them at night to a local police cell. 24 Syrians spent the night there. Then they sent them to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC). They separated Qusai from his family (his wife, 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter). The 24 Syrians stayed locked up in the IDC for a week. Then they were released with no explanation. A local aid worker told me about one man who was locked in the IDC for 14 years.

And there were many problems before the bombing. Qusai worked at an Arabian restaurant in the tourist area of Nana: ‘I worked 12 hours with very little pay.’ Thailand does not give work permits to refugees waiting for resettlement. So many have to work illegally to feed their families. Qusai worked 12-hour shifts and got 300 Thai baht per shift. This is less than $1 an hour.

His young children, like many other refugees in Bangkok, do not even get basic education. His daughter cannot go to normal school and has some lessons sometimes at weekends from a local Muslim teacher. And this is more education than most refugee children get.

‘We are alone, we are waiting,’ Qusai explains. ‘Please speak to us,’ he asks the embassies.

I met Qusai and Amjad at their home, and learned more about the refugee crisis.

We see terrible scenes of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. But talking with Qusai and Amjad, I heard about a different problem that some refugees have. I also saw and understood how bad it can be if the government do not care about people who do not have a home.

Qusai, Amjad and I had Arabian tea and swapped phone numbers. We promised to meet again if we are ever in the same country. Near the end of the afternoon, Qusai told me his dream for his family: all Qusai wants is to ‘live in peace, work hard, and build a good future for my kids so they can go to school and learn and live a normal life.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).