BANGKOK - Rights groups say the long-awaited rules Thailand's government approved this month for screening foreigners seeking refuge from persecution in their home countries are likely to leave many worthy applicants in the lurch.
The United Nations refugee agency says Thailand currently hosts about 5,000 "urban refugees and asylum seekers," though some rights groups say the real number may be much higher.
Thailand currently makes no official distinction between refugees or asylum seekers and other foreigners in the country illegally, leaving those seeking sanctuary at constant risk of arrest and a forced return home, where they may face arrest, torture or death.
Authorities often give refugees the chance to lay low or move to third countries, but forced more than 100 ethnic Uyghurs back to China in 2015 and four wanted political dissidents back to Cambodia, where they were promptly arrested, late last year.
"Right now, they [refugees] are always at risk of arrest and deport[ation]," said Naiyana Thanawattho, executive director of rights group Asylum Access Thailand.
Like most other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand has not ratified the U.N.'s refugee convention. In 2016, though, it did pledge to establish a program granting "protected persons status" to foreigners with a legitimate fear of persecution back home, giving them the legal right to stay in Thailand. The Cabinet approved the outlines of the plan, a so-called National Screening Mechanism, in 2019, with specific criteria for vetting applicants to come later.
The Cabinet approved those criteria Oct. 5.
The rules for refuge
The criteria will not be official until published in the Royal Gazette in the coming weeks and may still be tweaked between now and then. But the Cabinet's summary of what it approved says the program is for those "unable or unwilling to return to their countries of origin due to potential harm."
"There must be credible reasons to believe the person may be harmed upon returning," it adds. "Said harms include physical attacks, threats to life or freedom, torture, enforced disappearance, or other severe human rights violations."
Thai citizens or permanent residents, migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar, and anyone covered by unspecified Interior Ministry "protocols" would be barred from the program.
Applicants would also have to pass a health screening, a criminal background check, and a review of their "personal and political behavior.' Anyone who makes it through could still be rejected for unspecified "national security" reasons and will have no right to know exactly why.
Rights groups say they welcome the broad definition of what can count as "harm." They are also glad the rules make it clear that the U.N., nongovernmental groups and lawyers can help people through the application process.
They are worried, though, about the many reasons the criteria give for turning applicants down.
Refugee advocates fear that, with all the possible exemptions, the program "could be the mechanism that screens people out instead of screening people in," said Waritsara Rungthong of the Refugee Rights Litigation Project, a local legal aid group.
"Some people, they have many status at the same time," she said. "For example, just because you are a migrant worker doesn't mean you are not also a refugee."
Advocates say some refugees may have fled Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar out of genuine fear for their safety and taken up work once in Thailand to support themselves or come strictly for the work at first and only later fallen afoul of their home governments for something they've said, done or posted online from abroad.
Rights groups are also unsure about exactly who falls within the groups covered by the Interior Ministry protocols the criteria mention. They fear the groups may include refugees' children either born in Thailand or born abroad but attending school here. Both groups are eligible for some form of government-issued ID.
A dearth of detail
Advocates are anxious, too, over the lack of specifics about exactly what "national security" concerns might disqualify someone who has cleared all other hurdles, and about what sort of "political behavior" might raise red flags with the authorities. They are worried the vague phrasing could lead to inconsistent decisions on who to approve or reject, and that the government may use "national security" as an excuse to trade favors with other countries that want their dissidents back.
Both the National Screening Mechanism the Cabinet approved in 2019 and the vetting criteria it OK'd this month say that the decisions of the screening committee are final.
Despite that, Thai law allows government orders to be appealed to the country's Administrative Court, which runs alongside but separate from its civil and criminal courts.
Because the program's rules do not spell that out, though, some rejected applicants may give up, said Kornkanok Wathanabhoom of Fortify Rights, a nongovernment group focused on Southeast Asia.
"They [the rules] did not clarify, and the applicant, they don't know about the administrative law, so they [may] never know that they have the right to appeal to the Administrative Court," she said.
Government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri did not reply to VOA's requests for an interview about the rights groups' concerns.
Even so, all three rights workers said the program, if and when it finally takes effect, would be a welcome improvement on the status quo and the ever-present fear of forced repatriation that refugees now live with.
Besides letting successful applicants stay in Thailand legally, the program would give them the right to use the country's public schools and hospitals. While the rules don't yet say so, advocates hope they'll be allowed to work as well.
"It's still better than nothing," said Naiyana.
"With this step there will be people who will be considered properly, hopefully properly, and going through the process and get the status, and then they can live more safely," she said. "And that is our aim ... to see that people can enjoy their human rights, they can move freely, they can work, their children can go to school, they can live with dignity and make a decision of what their future would be."