Back in 2013 when I first heard about the 350 or so Syrians who had just arrived in Bangkok fleeing war torn Syria, my initial reaction was a mixture of sadness, surprise, and intrigue. I felt very sad to see yet another example of the tragedy that is the war in Syria.
Surprised and intrigued that these individuals and families came this far to a country and culture that are so different from their own. They arrived in a country not known for offering any legal recognition or protection to asylum seekers and refugees. Why did they choose Thailand? What did they hope or plan to do once they arrived here? Soon enough, I came to understand more and more about the details of their circumstances which helped shed some light on the issues and concerns I had about their plight.
My biggest concern was about their legal status in Thailand (a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and with domestic laws that do not recognize refugees), these Syrians were bound to face an uphill struggle. Patterns of severe human rights violations and abuses suffered by tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees in Thailand are well documented and reported. What was even more worrying was the fact these new asylum seekers were in fact Palestinian-Syrians ie Palestinians who had fled the Israeli occupation of Palestine and became refugees in Syria. They were effectively stateless, with no passports. Their travel documents are not recognised by many governments round the world. As “second-time refugees or double refugees”, they were much more vulnerable than other asylum seekers in Thailand.
What I learnt over the weeks and months that followed made me realise the extent of this human tragedy. As I got to meet and read more about the situation of these Palestinian-Syrians, the sacrifices they made to stay alive and the subsequent journeys they embarked on, it became increasingly evident that their story, while by no means dissimilar to that of millions of other refugees round the world, had to be told and shared widely.
The tragedy that is the bloody Syrian civil war is the largest humanitarian operation in history according to the UN. It has shattered lives and led to the displacement of several million people. And yet, little attention has been paid to Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians, in particular, who chose to flee by means other than the much publicised and perilous journeys made by hundreds of thousands of refugees who cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. Furthermore, for stateless asylum seekers and “second-time refugees” such as these Palestinian-Syrians, the extent of the damage that can be inflicted on them by other governments because they have no state entity to protect them makes their situation even more complex and more tragic. Every story and every human life affected by this on-going bloody war deserves to/must be told.
The story I got to learn about was that of one Palestinian-Syrian family comprising 18 members (including seven children). I met some of them at a refugee event in Bangkok during which adults and children, men and women shared their experiences of life in a war zone, their daily struggles as ‘illegal immigrants’ living in Bangkok and their hope for the future.
The 18-member family arrived in Bangkok with tourist visas they managed to obtain in Lebanon. They had to sell their assets back in Syria to be able to cover the costs of their travels to Thailand. As soon as their visas expired their situation became more precarious even though the UNHCR had started processing their claim for resettlement in a third country. The Refugee Certificate given to them by the UNHCR is not recognized as a legal document by the Thai authorities. All 18 members immediately became “illegal immigrants”. As such, they were automatically excluded from all the rights they would have been entitled to as asylum seekers under international law. Amongst the many challenges they faced were lack of access to formal education, secure housing, employment, and physical and mental health services. The risk of arrest and detention was a real and constant risk for them all.
The family became virtual prisoners in their small two room rented apartment in Bangkok, too frightened to go out for basic needs like food and medical treatment. The children could not play outside the apartment nor could they attend school. In fact, the fear of arrest, detention and/or police extortion was real not least because some members who were forced to work illegally to support the rest of the family were at times apprehended by the police and forced to pay bribes to avoid detention.
Their experiences as asylum seekers in Thailand were a far cry from the life they had as Palestinian refugees in Syria. Despite being highly educated and with professional jobs, many members of this family could not work legally or use their skills to support themselves and their families. Instead, they had to depend on handouts from the UNHCR as well as some local and international charity organizations. One member also had the misfortune of experiencing life in the infamous Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok where he was locked up for several days not being officially charged and then released with no explanation. Hunger strike, protests and requests to the UNHCR to speed up the resettlement process proved ineffective. Not surprising given that less than 1% of all refugees globally are offered places in 27 resettlement countries.
The ordeal endured by this family of Palestinian-Syrians finally came to an end a few months ago when the decision for their resettlement finally came through; New Zealand granted them refugee status and was to be their new home. One would have thought that this breaking news would mark the end of all their troubles. Not so! Since the Thai authorities considered them “illegal immigrants” who overstayed their visas, all 18 members had to pay a fine of 20,000.000 baht each or face imprisonment. Lead by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a Thailand-based advocacy group for Palestinians worldwide, a fundraising campaign was launched. Within a few weeks scores of people in Thailand and abroad contributed to setting this family free.
Less than a month ago, the family sent an update from their new home expressing their thanks and gratitude to all those who helped them survive their traumas. They can finally feel safe and are determined to making a fresh start in their new home by contributing as much as they can to New Zealand society.
As I recall the story of this one family that has found refuge thousands of miles away from their war torn adopted home country, I am reminded again of the courage, resilience and determination of millions of asylum seekers and refugees across the world who live in hope and would risk their lives again and again to stay alive. Legal protection and basic human kindness and support from the privileged majority would lessen the need to tell such a story.