APEC security measures put more pressure on Cambodian political refugees

With the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, to be held in Thailand on 18-19 November, political refugees from Cambodia are extremely worried that tightened security measures may affect their already fragile safety.

Representatives and Cambodian political refugees file a petition in front of the UNHCR in Thailand on October 31, 2022.

According to The Bangkok Post, 25,000 police officers from Bangkok and surrounding provinces will be brought in to protect Apec meeting participants. To keep an eye on the situation and ensure that delegates are secure, some officers will be placed along the routes that the motorcades of summit participants will travel and others will be stationed on the roofs of buildings.

Sao Palak, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party refugee (CNRP) administration committee in Thailand, says that whenever the Thai government tightens security for significant meetings, Cambodian authorities use the opportunity to collude with corrupt Thai officials to arrest political refugees.

Concerned by developments, representatives of Cambodian political refugees in Thailand submitted a petition about the heightened risk of detention to the UNHCR on October 31, asking the UNHCR to keep refugees safe.

Since the majority of political refugees do not have passports, only the UNHCR-issued cards, they are unable to travel or take any other action during this time in order to avoid being arrested and to ensure their own safety.

While this is going on, our political refugees are very worried about their personal safety; it is difficult for us to go out and buy food … We are unable to do what we would like the signatories of the Paris Agreement to do in order to help resolve the political crisis in Cambodia; and we cannot meet on the occasion of Thailand's preparations for the APEC summit.”

RFA reported last month that 12 Khmer Krom refugees with UN status who were found to be working illegally in Thailand had been detained by Thai immigration authorities and brought to detention centres where they would face charges for entering the country without authorisation.

According to a spokesperson for the immigration police, all of the detainees had UNHCR-issued cards, but they were detained because they lacked travel documents and had broken Thai law. He added that in preparation for Thailand hosting the APEC conference next month, police were tightening up security measures.

UNHCR cards unrecognised by police

Palak said that in the current situation, asylum seekers in Thailand will suffer because they will not be able leave their rooms to look for employment without risking arrest, even if they carried UNHCR-issued cards.

When we show the UNHCR card, they (the police) do not recognise the card,” he said. They find a way for us to pay them as undocumented immigrants, and if the UNHCR does not step in to help, the immigration authorities may detain us or send us back to Cambodia.”

Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and "has no regulations in place to provide refugees with any legal status,” according to the refugee rights organisation Asylum Access Thailand.

This means that refugee cards do not give bearers a legal right to live here.

Thousands of refugees, lacking legal status, remain at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation back to danger in their home countries.

In addition to legal problems, they have also had limited support since the Covid-19 outbreak. Several organisations have stopped providing aid. Only two remain.

According to Duong Chantra, former CNRP deputy chief in Kampong Chhnang province who fled to Thailand in 2019 after refusing to join the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), workplaces are becoming more restrictive; they can no longer hire migrants who simply have UNHCR cards. His livelihood today depends on food from temples and donations.

He knew that seeking asylum in Thailand as a political refugee would be risky and worries that Thai authorities will eventually deport him to Cambodia.

News reports in 2018 suggest that Thailand and Cambodia may have an agreement to "exchange foreign fugitives,” a deal that would undermine the safety of fugitive politicians, activists, and opposition figures.

Chantra has submitted several applications for asylum through UNHCR, but has yet to be granted permission to enter a third country.

Palak explained that applying for asylum in third countries was complicated. As UN officials had to first collect all the information and documents related to the case, it took a long time - from 3 to 6 months.

Even though Thailand is not a safe place for political refugees, a majority of them travel here. The shared border makes it easy to do, legally or otherwise. They also have little trouble adapting to life in Thailand, he said.

He added that the Philippines is a safer haven, but illegal immigration is harder there because living conditions and communication are more challenging.

According to the refugee administration committee, there are currently some 40 Cambodian political refugees living in Thailand while only 2 are in the Philippines.

He urged related NGOs to pay attention to the refugees in Thailand by providing food and support. He also asked the Thai authorities to stop persecuting Cambodian refugees who are living in Thailand.

We are the victims of social and political injustice in Cambodia.  We fled to Thailand for a while, but … (the police) persecuted us and sent us back to Cambodia, which is inhumane … the UNHCR [should] help expedite the process of sending political refugees to third countries,” Chantra said.

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