(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately stop expelling asylum seekers at the Myanmar border, Human Rights Watch said today. Thailand should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unhindered access to asylum seekers from Myanmar to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
On March 7, 2021, the Thai army’s Pha Muang Taskforce in Chiang Rai province intercepted a group of eight Myanmar nationals – four men, including two monks, and four women – as they were crossing the Ruak River from Myanmar’s Tachileik district into Thailand’s Chiang Saen district, and pushed them back across the border. According to media reports, Thai authorities did not verify whether anyone in this group had fled the ongoing violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tachileik district and whether they needed protection.
“Thai authorities should stop pushing back people who are fleeing Myanmar,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government should immediately allow all asylum seekers fleeing the violent crackdown in Myanmar access to desperately needed protection.”
The Thai army claimed they were acting to prevent cross-border transmission of Covid-19. Thai authorities have closed land borders with Myanmar and other neighboring countries. However, this policy violates international refugee law’s nonrefoulement principle, which provides that no one should be returned to a country where they are likely to face persecution, torture, or other serious harm, even during a pandemic.
“UNHCR has been clear: it is possible for a country both to protect the public health of its people and to ensure access to territory for people forced to flee their homes,” said Gillian Triggs, assistant high commissioner for protection, in a news release. “Measures restricting access to asylum must not be allowed to become entrenched under the guise of public health.”
Nonrefoulement is a recognized principle of customary international law. It applies to Thailand even though Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a refugee law or functioning asylum procedures. Thailand regards refugees of all nationalities living outside of designated refugee camps as being in the country illegally.
Against the backdrop of the recent political violence and persecution in Myanmar, Thai authorities have prepared facilities along the border in Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces to accommodate asylum seekers from Myanmar according to media reports. These facilities currently stand empty. The Thai government has not publicly stated whether UNHCR will be allowed access to screen those seeking refugee status.
UNHCR has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the international mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all arrivals from Myanmar would help Thai authorities determine who is entitled to refugee status.
“Thailand should provide all asylum seekers from Myanmar a fair chance to have their refugee claims examined by the United Nations refugee agency,” Frelick said. “Border control policies should fully take into account Thailand’s international obligations to protect refugees.”
Clarification: The quote attributed to UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs in a November 2020 UNHCR news release was an appeal to all states, and should not be construed as an appeal to any particular country.