COVID-19 Op-ed

Is the Light Getting Dimmer for Urban Refugees in Thailand in the Time of Covid-19?

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Bhanubhatra JittiangDepartment of
International Relations,Faculty of Political Science,Chulalongkorn

Since 1 April 2020, I have been in contact with a number of
urban refugees to check on their situation in the time of Covid-19. Each
narrative I heard was distressful. This health crisis has made them more
vulnerable, jeopardizing their livelihood and health, as well as challenging
any resettlement prospects in the near future. In this article, I share the
story of Abdullah, a Palestinian refugee, to reflect upon the struggles of
around 5,000 urban refugees in Bangkok (Quinley, 2019) amid the ongoing
pandemic.Abdullah moved to Thailand with his family since 2014, hoping to get
quick resettlement in a third country. Their hope seems waned upon setting
their feet in Thailand. They have soon learned that the resettlement quota
allocated for refugees in the country is limited, while living and blending
into the Thai community is challenging, especially given their distinct
physical appearances from the locals. Furthermore, their “refugee status”
does not ensure access to adequate protection because the Thai government has
never officially recognized refugees. Thailand is neither a party to the 1951
Convention Related to the Status of Refugees nor to its 1967 Protocol and
would resort to the enforcement of the national immigration laws (Palmgren,
2013.)To reduce exposure to Thai authorities, “staying home” has become a
norm for Abdullah’s family. Still, they need to generate income to survive.
In order to do so, Abdullah and his sister, Sabiha work as a tour guide for
Arab tourists and as an interpreter for an NGO, respectively. When going out
to work, both siblings are always cautious, trying not to get caught by the
police. Getting arrested means no one would take care of the family. In some
instances, they would bribe officers for freedom. These financial burdens,
apart from other challenges living in a foreign land, are taking a great toll
on the family.When the pandemic hit Thailand, the siblings immediately
scrambled for opportunities to survive. In his written message to me,
Abdullah said, “we have not yet paid the rent and amenities for our house”
(Personal Communication, 9 April 2020.) Such situation
is shared among low-income families and migrant workers in Thailand, but the
condition of urban refugees is particularly severe. They have no access to
funding from the Thai government due to their lack of recognized status and
have no home to return for short-term support. Abdullah’s family is now
surviving on lent money and donations.In terms of healthcare, refugees have
already been facing issues when it comes to access to services prior to
Covid-19. Only a few refugee families in Thailand could afford and enjoy
medical services and medication (Pittaway, 2015.) The fear of authorities
also prevents most urban refugees from seeking appropriate care from the Thai
state. Only a handful with severe cases are referred to public
hospitals. Now that we are in a great health crisis, services are even much
costlier and more limited. Moreover, refugees could not comply with physical
distancing regulations as families live in small spaces, wherein some cases
are shared with others. They are without a doubt at high risk of getting
infected.The future of urban refugees has become more uncertain with the
pandemic stretching in the coming months. Since most states around the globe
have been prioritizing their citizens, many potential third
countries—especially in Europe—will likely reduce the number of intaking
refugees or extend their temporary suspension on resettlement programs (See,
e.g., Shenoy, 2020.) Resettlement opportunities for those awaiting would be
affected and greatly reduced. Therefore, protracted situation will continue,
accompanied by increased levels of stress and anxiety, as well as, challenges
to survive.The pandemic, nevertheless, provides an excellent opportunity for
the Thai government to fulfill commitments to protect refugee rights made by
General Prayuth Chan-o-cha at the 2016 Leaders’ Summit on Refugees (Ministry
of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, 2016.) Thailand should accelerate the
implementation of the national screening mechanism approved at the end of
last year—which includes healthcare provision for the screened-in (See,
Royal Thai Government Gazette, 2019.) Refugees could
then access essential health services in cases of infections. Furthermore,
the Thai government must realize that Covid-19 knows no ethnicity and
nationality. People can easily transmit the deadly virus to others.
Protecting urban refugees, thus, means protecting Thai citizens. For these
reasons, Thailand must provide protection and assistance to urban refugees
now!Notes:Pseudonyms are used to protect anonymity of
of Foreign Affairs of Thailand. 2016. “Press Releases: Thailand Pledged
AdditionalAssistance to Alleviate the Plights of Displaced Persons.” Accessed
on April 21, 2020 (,
Pei A. 2013. “Irregular Networks: Bangkok Refugees in the City and
Region.”Journal of Refugee Studies 27(1):
21-41.Pittaway, Eileen. 2015. “Life in Limbo: Unregistered Urban Refugees on
the Thai-BurmaBorder.” Pp.164-186 in Urban Refugees: Challenges in
Protection, Services and Policy
,edited by K. Koizumi and G.
Hoffstaedter. London: Routledge.Quinley, Caleb. 2019. “Life in the Shadows:
Thailand’s Urban Refugees.” The New
Humanitarian. Accessed on April 16, 2020
Thai Government Gazette
. 2019. “Regulations of the Office of the
PrimeMinister on the Screening of Aliens Who Enter into the Kingdom and Are
Unable to Return to the Country of Origin B.E. 2562,” Book 136, Section
Special 314 G, December 25.Shenoy, Rupa. 2020. “Families in limbo as refugee
resettlement is suspended due to COVID-19.” PRI.
Accessed on April 16, 2020 (

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