Cablegate: Thailand: A Key, If Sometimes Reluctant, Partner

DE RUEHBK #3145/01 3490941
P 150941Z DEC 09


E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/10/2019

Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, for Reasons 1.4 (b and d.)


1. (C) Introduction: Thailand is one of our closest partners
on refugee affairs, having hosted perhaps the largest number
of long-term refugees in the world over the past four
decades. Over the past thirty-five years, some half-million
refugees have moved through Thailand to resettle in third
countries, predominantly in the United States; no other
nation can make that claim. Nevertheless, Thailand has never
signed the 1951 Geneva Convention and has often proven a
reluctant partner in providing refuge and facilitating onward
passage to willing third countries on the full set of terms
we would prefer. The history of vulnerable groups entering
Thailand continues due to the poor governance and repressive
policies of its neighbors near and occasionally afar, as well
as Thailand's reputation for tolerance/lax enforcement; as a
result, the Royal Thai Government (RTG) maintains its
traditional concerns about being inundated by new inflows of
what it calls displaced persons.

2. (C) In practice, the RTG makes practical accommodations
towards certain vulnerable populations, while other arrivals
are formally regarded as illegal migrants with little
recourse to international standards of refugee protection.
Camp-resident Burmese minorities, currently numbering about
150,000 and in Thailand in large numbers since 1990, are
generally not returned to Burma, and the RTG has established
an asylum mechanism to consider their cases. The large scale
resettlement program of Karen and Karenni Burmese to the U.S.
receives Thai support. Other arrivals - North Koreans, Lao
Hmong, Rohyinga boat people, politically sensitive Chinese
and Vietnamese, and a virtual United Nations of "urban cases"
in Bangkok - are all officially subject to detention and
deportation, although in practice there are gradations of
treatment for each group. Such differences are based on the
RTG's weighting of the value of the bilateral relations with
the country of origin, and the personalities in charge at the
National Security Council (NSC) and Immigration Bureau.
Advocacy for non-Burmese groups involves intervention with
RTG officials in several different ministries.

3. (C) Comment. While there has long been a legal gray zone
in Thailand for vulnerable groups, we have generally been
able to achieve our objectives over the years working
persistently and quietly, often with multiple, simultaneous
challenges, from established populations likely to be
resettled to time-sensitive dissident/asylum cases. Our
advocacy goal on vulnerable groups in Thailand is to
encourage basic protections, to include non-refoulement, in
line with the 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which the RTG
is not a signatory. Thailand agreed to resettlement of the
largest group, ethnic minority Burmese, in 2005, thus
enabling us to provide the first available durable solution
for that static refugee situation.

4. (C) Comment, cont: Given the wide range of refugee-related
interests in Thailand, we must occasionally balance optimal
outcomes in a specific case with our equities in other
programs which depend on the same decision-makers and
relationships. This dynamic is currently in play as we head
to a seeming resolution of the Lao Hmong populations. With
the investment of political capital, we can eventually win
permission for high-profile individual cases to depart
Thailand, including political dissidents from China and
Vietnam. This cable is the final of a series which examines
crucial operational elements of the broad and deep U.S.-Thai
relationship that benefit U.S. interests; previous messages
have examined the mil-mil relationship; law enforcement
cooperation; health/disease research; and use of Thailand as
a regional management hub (Refs A-D). End Introduction and

Ambivalent Attitudes Toward "Refugees"

5. (SBU) Buffeted by the winds from thirty years of armed
conflict and near genocide in neighboring countries, Royal
Thai Government (RTG) attitudes towards vulnerable groups
entering Thailand are informed by a fear of being inundated
with new refugee inflows. RTG anxiety and conflicting
attitudes towards vulnerable people arriving in Thailand are
reflected in the language used by officials. The nine
established refugee camps, which have housed over a hundred
thousand ethnic minorities from Burma for almost two decades,
are officially referred to as "temporary transit centers,"
and the refugees themselves as "temporarily displaced
persons." However, with UNHCR assistance the RTG has
established Provincial Admissions Boards (PABs), an asylum
mechanism which considers whether individual cases should be
allowed to stay in the camps.

6. (SBU) RTG attitudes are simpler for the other, smaller
vulnerable populations in Thailand - Lao Hmong, North
Koreans, Rohingya boat people, Chinese and Vietnamese
political dissidents, and people fleeing unrest in Somalia,
Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. All are formally
considered as illegal migrants subject to detention and
deportation to the last country of embarkation, and no
domestic asylum mechanism exists to hear their cases. But
even within this non-Burmese universe of refugees, there are
gradations of treatment. RTG cooperation is provided to the
Republic of Korea in "deporting" arriving North Koreans to
Seoul, rather than to China (usually the last country of
residence) or to North Korea. Asylum seekers confined in the
main IDC in Bangkok are generally not deported if the
individuals managed to contact UNHCR and begin the refugee
status determination process before their arrest on
immigration law violations.

The Groups: The Burmese

7. (SBU) The sheer weight of numbers of ethnic minority
Burmese entering Thailand, primarily to escape village
relocation campaigns by the Burmese military (and associated
forced labor), forces practical accommodations on the part of
the RTG. About 130,000 are registered with UNHCR and the
RTG, but it is thought that some 20-50,000 additional people
are in the camps. New arrivals fleeing fighting are not
forced to return to Burma. In June, for example, about 2,000
Karen Burmese entered Thailand when attacked by a Burmese
government-backed militia and were allowed to remain in a
temporary site on Thai soil.

8. (SBU) The PABs were established in the late 1990's to
review whether arriving ethnic minorities from Burma are
"fleeing fighting" and should be allowed to stay in the
camps. At UNHCR's urging, "fleeing political violence" has
recently been added to the PAB screening criteria, and has
begun to be used in practice. In 2004-2005 the PABs formally
admitted almost all of the ethnic Burmese minorities in the
camps. A second round of PAB screening was completed in four
pilot camps in November, and the remaining five camps will be
processed in the first half of 2010. An estimated 30,000 or
so new refugees will be permitted to stay, partially
replacing the 54,000 who have departed for third country
resettlement-the great majority to the U.S.

Third Country Resettlement for Burmese

9. (SBU) In 2005, the RTG agreed to allow a large-scale third
country resettlement program for ethnic minority Burmese. In
FY09, 14,300 refugees entered the U.S. from Thailand, one of
the largest such resettlement programs worldwide. About half
of the current population of refugees has expressed interest
in US resettlement. Although mildly disappointed that the
large scale program has not "emptied" the camps, the RTG
continues to support the effort as a measure to ease crowding
(and related tensions) in the largest facilities.

10. (SBU) The long term solution to the plight of the ethnic
Burmese refugees in Thailand is improvement in the human
rights situation in Burma. In the interim, donor attention
is focused on reducing their dependency on donor aid.
Refugees in Thailand are not permitted to work or travel
outside the camps, although in practice many in the larger,
more accessible camps do so. The RTG has been resistant to
attempts to link the major resettlement effort to a policy
change allowing limited steps towards self-sufficiency for
refugees. We have begun, along with other major donors in the
established camps, an advocacy campaign to leverage our
substantial investment in the resettlement program to
increase the policy space for refugees to work and grow food
outside the camps.

The Lao Hmong: Petchabun and Nong Khai

11.(C) RTG policy towards Lao Hmong entering Thailand is
formed by the particular history of this group, and the
fervent desire to deter new arrivals. Some of the remaining
4,200 Lao Hmong in the army-run facility in Petchabun
province were drawn to Thailand by a U.S. resettlement
program in 2004-2005 of 15,000 Hmong from a long-established
settlement at Wat Tham Krabok. Others are longer-resident,
having migrated from Laos in the 1980's and 90's to live with
kinship groups of Thai Hmong. Nervous that a new third
country resettlement program would draw further numbers from
Laos, the National Security Council (NSC) directed that all
Lao Hmong should be treated as illegal migrants and returned
to Laos. A 2007 MOU with Laos stipulates that the group
should be returned by December 30, 2009.

12. (C) Actual implementation of the policy for the large
Petchabun group is in the hands of the Royal Thai Armed
Forces Headquarters (RTARF), which treats the issue as one of
several (including drug and contraband trafficking) addressed
in a regular Thai-Lao bilateral border commission. Over the
past 18 months, about 2,800 people from Petchabun have been
returned by the RTARF to Laos, induced by a combination of
monetary incentives and threats of forcible deportation.
Recent RTG pronouncements indicate that the remaining
population - including some 500-plus identified in an
internal screening process in January 2008 as having
protection concerns - may well be returned to Laos in the
coming weeks.

13. (C) A second humanitarian situation is presented by the
detention of 158 Lao Hmong (including 87 children) in the
small immigration jail at Nong Khai, along the border with
Laos. The RTG attempted to deport the group, which has
received UNHCR refugee status, in 2006. The forced return
was stopped mid-stream after international community
objections, and the group has languished in Nong Khai for
three years. We have eased the crowding by constructing a
temporary day-time rest facility outside the IDC and are
funding nurse and teacher visits by IOM. In order to find a
solution for this group, we have begun discussing with UNHCR
(and other resettlement countries) the possibility of a
exceptional, transit-in-Laos mechanism for third country
resettlement. The concept rests on the willingness of the
refugees to participate, which in turn will depend on the
credibility of security guarantees by the Government of Laos
during a planned short stay in Laos. Another 267
UNHCR-recognized Lao Hmong refugees live freely in Lopburi
province and Bangkok, and their fate complicates any solution
for the Nong Khai group.

Asia's Boat People: The Rohingya

14. (SBU) The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group historically
resident in Burma's Northern Rakhine State along the border
with Bangladesh, are a de jure stateless people stripped of
even the most basic civil rights by the Burmese regime. For
several years, many Rohingya men have set sail in rudimentary
vessels from Burma and Bangladesh in an attempt to reach
hoped-for employment in Malaysia. The first inhabited
islands encountered on the sea route belong to Thailand, and
many boats landed there. In November 2008, local military
commanders decided to begin pushing back to sea new arrivals
as a deterrent. Lacking resources, local civil defense
groups (typically local villagers) were given brief crowd
control training and charged with rounding up and returning
the Rohingya back to sea.

15. (SBU) Immediately after the first press reports surfaced
of the push-backs in January 2009, we visited the arrival
sites, advocating better treatment of the Rohingya boat
people with local civilian defense volunteers and Thai
military officials. The temporary policy was quickly
abandoned, and the inhabitants of the next boat to arrive
were turned over to immigration officials for normal
processing. UNHCR was given access, and after the death of
two of the detainees in a local immigration detention center
(IDC) the group was moved to Bangkok's main IDC in August,
where they remain. It appears this more humane policy will
be followed during the upcoming sailing season (November to
May, when seas are calmer.) We do not yet know what the
ultimate disposition for this group will be.

The North Koreans

16. (C) Reflecting its pragmatic approach to certain
vulnerable groups, the RTG permits North Koreans entering
Thailand illegally to resettle in the Republic of Korea (ROK)
and, in much smaller numbers, in the U.S. The accommodation
takes into account the relatively small numbers (1-2,000 per
year), concerns regarding overcrowding in Bangkok's main
immigration jail, and effective lobbying by the ROK
government, an important trade partner and market for Thai
labor. The special policy is publicly presented by the RTG as
"Koreans being deported to Korea", with geographic
distinctions between North and South conveniently blurred.
UNHCR is not permitted a protection or refugee status
determination role by the RTG. The "deportation" requires
that all North Koreans are required to report to immigration
detention before they are allowed to depart Thailand.
Detention time depends on processing speed, and is currently
is about 3-4 weeks for ROK-bound cases.

17. (C) U.S.-bound cases fortunate enough to have avoided
arrest by Thai police can wait out processing steps in
private accommodation or a local NGO shelter, and then enter
the IDC when travel-ready to pay the fine and be "deported"
via Seoul. For those arrested before U.S. processing is
complete, waits in immigration detention can be months-long.
After Ambassadorial meetings with the Immigration
Commissioner, we are now generally able to gain access for
the required U.S. processing steps to be completed. We are
working with IOM to improve physical conditions in the IDC's
cells, and to provide medical care for the detainees. As of
December 13, only six North Korean cases/seven individuals
remained in the active U.S pipeline in Thailand. Stricter
control along the China-North Korea border, and refugee
disenchantment with the longer wait times (compared to the
ROK processing) needed for the U.S. resettlement program,
appear to be the causes of the decline in numbers.

The Political Dissidents (PRC and Vietnam)

18. (C) High-profile political dissidents from Vietnam and
China make their way, either alone or more often with the
help of advocacy NGOs, to Bangkok in an attempt to gain U.S.
resettlement. (Note: Political activists from Burma, found
mostly in the town of Mae Sot along the border, are not
allowed to resettle unless they are in an established camp.
Few enter, as they enjoy far greater freedom of movement and
communications outside. End Note.) Vietnamese and Chinese
dissidents normally enter Thailand without passport and/or
visa, subjecting them to arrest and setting the scene for
high-level interventions with RTG policy makers to enable
them to depart Thailand. A recent case, involving the family
of a prominent Chinese dissident, required the Ambassador's
personal intervention with the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

19. (C) The procedure for obtaining the exit permit in such
cases is deliberately left unclear, and in practice we must
make separate, simultaneous representations to the National
Security Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the
Immigration Commissioner. All cases require, at a minimum,
payment of a fine for illegal entry into Thailand. Ideally,
approvals are received from more than one bureaucracy,
although ultimately the Immigration Commissioner is the key
player: like any refugee, dissidents must pass through
immigration departure at the main airport before leaving
Thailand for the U.S. The process, which can take several
weeks, takes significant investment of political capital on
our part. Our requests cannot be repeated too often to avoid
the perception that we are organizing an "underground
railroad" of politically sensitive cases through Thailand.
Low-key discretion without publicity is also key,
particularly given Thailand's desire to improve relations
with countries it viewed a generation ago as adversaries.

The Urban Cases: Bangkok as Asia's Crossroads

20. (SBU) UNHCR currently has 2,000 so-called "urban cases"
on its books in Bangkok, a catch-all category which includes
Chinese Falun Gong, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Khmer Krom, West
Africans, and others. All are attracted to Thailand by its
status as a regional transportation hub, and its reputation
as a center for fraudulent documents and lax law enforcement.
The common denominator for urban cases is that many are in
immigration detention in Bangkok's main jail, a crowded,
dismal facility. Many spend months there, frozen in place by
the lack of options for their departure. Access for
resettlement waxes and wanes depending on the personal
policies of the Immigration Commissioner. Until September
2008, access (and therefore resettlement) was strictly
limited. Since then, a new commissioner has proven more
flexible, and we receive regular referrals from UNHCR.
Access by our other partners in the refugee resettlement
program (USCIS, IOM and Overseas Processing Entity) is
normally permitted without significant delay.

Regional Refugee Work out of the Bangkok platform
--------------- --

21. (U) This message has focused on our efforts on refugee
protection and resettlement in Thailand, as part of a series
of deep and broad operational partnerships forged with Thai
counterparts over the past several decades (reftels). In
common with many other Mission Thailand sections, the Refugee
and Migration Affairs office has a regional role as well. A
large refugee resettlement program from Malaysia (over 5,000
people this FY) is managed from Bangkok, and we travel also
to Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, and China to assist smaller
refugee populations.

© Scoop Media

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