If you’re fleeing persecution and make it to Bangkok’s streets, Thailand has a legal definition for you: illegal immigrant.
It’s something to remember when Stephen Harper is in the Thai capital this weekend to discuss people smuggling with the country’s police.
Stopping the gangs that load asylum seekers onto rickety boats is a good thing. But recognizing that some people who sail on them may be real refugees is important, too. Halting smuggling also requires more work opening the front door to refugees.
Canada started a new era of police co-operation with the Thais since the MV Sun Sea hit British Columbia in 2010 carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils from Thailand, and Mr. Harper will formalize this arrangement with Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
But Thailand hasn’t signed the international convention on protecting refugees. A Sri Lankan who shows up in Thailand seeking refugee status is considered an illegal immigrant. Asylum-seekers can be, and often are, arrested and deported.
It would be easy to blame Thailand for failing to protect refugees, but in fact they’ve done an awful lot of it. There are 92,000 registered refugees and 50,000 unregistered asylum-seekers from Myanmar in camps near the border. Thailand has played host to vast numbers of refugees from other countries before. That’s why the developing country hasn’t signed onto treaties requiring it to protect refugees.
The country is also a crossroads in the region. People from other countries come and go, often for economic reasons. Some real asylum-seekers make it to Bangkok from countries that aren’t on the border, such as Sri Lanka, and become so-called “urban refugees.”
“If they manage to get to Bangkok, they can come to our office and get registered,” said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The refugee body later reviews their case to decide if they need protection. But in the meantime, they “still can be arrested, thrown in detention centres for indefinite periods of time, even years, and deported,” Ms. McKinsey said.
The UNHCR lists 1,550 of those urban asylum-seekers in Thailand. Countries such as Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand resettle some of them.
Mr. Harper should be looking to offer a better deal. He should be pressing Thailand to separate real asylum-seekers from illegal immigrants, but he should also offer to resettle more of them in Canada, if Thailand truly is policing smugglers. He should be pressing other resettling countries with similar interests, such as Australia and New Zealand, to do likewise.
There are millions of refugees, and the issue can’t be made neat and tidy. But closing a door does require opening another, and it fits Canadian interests.
The whole issue of smugglers was revived with new political zeal after the MV Sun Sea (though Canada now blasts Sri Lanka’s human-rights record). Immigration Minister Jason Kenney argues Canada has to be protected from bogus refugees whose claims gum up the refugee system or who simply disappear. The smugglers, he says, are dangerous for their customers and for Canada.
The Conservatives proposed a deterrent, too. A bill before the Commons would allow the immigration minister to subject all passengers on a smuggler’s boat to mandatory detention for a year. The government notes they’ll be released if their refugee claims are approved, and promises to speed up the system so a first decision will take only three or four months. If that doesn’t work, excessive year-long mandatory detention becomes a cruel farce.
But Canada has long done more than most to resettle UNHCR refugees from abroad. Mr. Kenney increased the targets in 2010; Instead of 10,000 a year, Canada will resettle 2,500 more: 500 resettled by the government, and 2,000 sponsored by Canadians. There’s a reason to do more in Thailand.
People smugglers are a danger, charging onerous fees to load people onto ships fit for scrap. Policing, not detention, is the way to stop it. And that takes co-operation from countries such as Thailand.
But cracking down on smugglers won’t stop people fleeing persecution. How long will Thailand crack down on smugglers who are shipping them away when it bears so much of the refugee burden? It’s in Canada’s interest to help the Thais open the front door wider by resettling more refugees who go through the legitimate UNHCR process.