By Adam Severson
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently screens asylum seekers in Bangkok in a process known as “refugee status determination” (RSD). However, in January, Thailand’s cabinet approved a proposal to implement a domestic refugee screening mechanism.  Details are scant, but the proposed mechanism will replace UNHCR RSD—at least in part—and may impact many of the more than four thousand asylum seekers currently in Bangkok.  UNHCR has applauded the move and pledged support, but the new mechanism has not received the scrutiny it deserves. Refugee advocates and the international community should be watching closely and working with the Thai government to ensure the mechanism meets international standards for two reasons.
“The government has forcibly returned asylum seekers…to countries where they risk persecution.”
First, while Thailand has hosted refugees for decades, it has a poor record of providing them adequate protection.  The government will not accede to 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, and it treats asylum seekers and refugees as illegal immigrants, keeping many—including children—in detention.  Moreover, in recent years the government has forcibly returned asylum seekers  and even recognized refugees  to countries where they risk persecution. The UN Human Rights Committee raised many of these issues in its recent review of Thailand’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Thai government has complained that UNHCR’s RSD process is too slow and that the new screening mechanism is needed. The complaint is valid—UNHCR is under-resourced—but there are concerns that the new mechanism may compromise fairness in order to hasten decision-making. Refugee advocates and the international community should devote resources and expertise to ensure this does not happen. The goal should be a more efficient screening mechanism, not merely a faster one. Improving efficiency means increasing the decision-making rate while maintaining substantive and procedural fairness.
Second, Thailand’s new mechanism is likely to impact refugee protection in the region. Asia hosts nearly four million refugees; however, only twenty of forty-five Asian countries have signed or acceded to the Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, and many allow UNHCR to conduct RSD.  Regional governments wanting to create their own refugee screening mechanisms will likely look to Thailand’s example. Refugee advocates and the international community should work with the Thai government to ensure the example is a good one: a mechanism that is fast but fair.
About the author
Adam is a graduate of The University of Colorado
Law School. From 2012 to 2015, he represented asylum seekers applying for UNHCR protection in Egypt, Thailand, and Indonesia. He has worked for a variety of NGOs, including Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), Jesuit Refugee Service-Thailand, and St. Andrews Refugee Services (StARS). From 2015 to 2017, Adam was Senior Legal Advisor at Justice Centre Hong Kong, an NGO that provides legal and psychosocial support to asylum seekers and advocates on behalf of refugees and victims of human trafficking in Hong Kong. Adam is currently a Legal Consultant for Justice Centre.
 UNHCR Welcomes Thailand’s Approval of Framework for Refugee Screening Mechanism, THE NATION (Jan. 16, 2017), http://www.nationmultimedia.com/news/breakingnews/30304209?platform=hootsuite.
 Thailand Factsheet, ASIA PACIFIC REFUGEE RIGHTS NETWORK (March 2017), http://aprrn.info/pdf/Thailand%20Factsheet_MAR%202017.pdf.
 Ad Hoc and Inadequate: Thailand’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Sept. 12, 2012), https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/09/12/ad-hoc-and-inadequate/thailands-treatment-refugees-and-asylum-seekers.
 Chris Rogers, The Christians Held in Thailand after Fleeing Pakistan, BBC NEWS, THAILAND (Feb. 26, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35654804.
 Matt Shiavenza, Why Thailand Forced Uighurs to Return to China, THE ATLANTIC (July 12, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/thailand-china-uighur-refugees/398318.
 Aubrey Belford & Amy S. Lefevre, Thailand Knew Deported Chinese Were Refugees Awaiting Resettlement in Canada: U.N. Document, REUTERS (Nov. 30, 2015), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-thailand-refugees-idUSKBN0TJ1E620151130.
 Asia and the Pacific, UNHCR (2015) http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/publications/fundraising/574ed7934/unhcr-global-report-2015-asia-pacific-regional-summary.html.
[Source: The Refuge (April 2017), Volume 1, Issue 2, pages 4-5]