Silent struggles plague Cambodian refugees in Bangkok

A new government in Thailand offers little change for asylum seekers.
By Abby Seiff and Tha Vuthy for RFA
2024.04.16
Silent struggles plague Cambodian refugees in Bangkok Prak Sophea, a Cambodian activist, is seen in her Bangkok apartment in December 2023. She fled Cambodia in August 2023.
(RFA)

The chief way to pass time at the Refugee Camp is to worry. 

In an apartment whose single window overlooks a sunbaked street, Prak Sophea, 43, worries how she’ll pay rent next month. One floor up, 72-year-old Sreymom, worries she’ll never see her homeland again. Down the hall, Sok Soeum, 44, worries whether he can collect enough donations to feed his hungry neighbors.

Despite its nickname, the Refugee Camp is not really a camp. It is a nondescript apartment building in central Bangkok where a revolving population of Cambodian asylum seekers have for years found shelter through word of mouth. The rooms are shabby and the rents are high; but when you’re fleeing from your government and don’t speak a word of Thai, you take what you can get. 

“I don’t go anywhere, I just stay in my room so I have no problem,” said Sreymom, who asked that her name be changed for security reasons. She arrived in Thailand last year after Cambodian police started harassing her for the whereabouts of her son, a political activist who fled to Bangkok several years ago. “I cry all night, I miss home a lot.”

Today, she shares a room no larger than 200 square feet with her son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter-in-law. Though the family tries to keep it neat – pushing bedrolls against the wall, stacking suitcases in tidy piles – it is difficult with so many people in such tight quarters. The sole door in the room is attached to the bathroom in the corner. Across from it sits the space that serves as a kitchen. There is no sink or counter or appliances, simply a rice cooker, portable stove and a handful of plastic containers that are lined against the wall and pulled out when it is time to cook whatever food the family can get their hands on. 

With small variations — blue blankets instead of pink, two rice cookers instead of one — Sreymom’s flat is nearly identical to the one Sophea shares with her four children, and the one Soeum shares with his wife and son. 

“It’s difficult every day,” said Sreymom. “We don’t have enough food, but I don’t know what to do because we can’t go back.” 

The handful of Cambodians living in this building represent just a small portion of Thailand’s estimated 5,000 U.N.-registered urban refugees. Their quiet, fearful lives are shared by many. Thailand has never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning the government does not recognize asylum seekers. While refugees like Sophea, Soeum and Sreymom can register with the U.N. refugee office — opening a pathway to third-country resettlement — that does not give them legal protection in Thailand. 

Any one of them can easily be picked up by the police on the grounds that they’ve overstayed their visa and be threatened with deportation. Rights activists note the fear is particularly acute for political refugees, many of whom face threats from the same governments that their unwelcoming hosts retain close relationships with. 

After Thai elections last May resulted in the first non-military-led government in almost a decade, campaigners hoped it would result in better protections for asylum seekers and other vulnerable minorities. In Cambodia — which last year changed leaders for the first time in four decades — some wondered whether reforms lay in the future.  

Instead, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Manet, who took over his father’s position, heads a no less repressive administration, according to rights groups. Across the border, Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai Party has shown little interest in reforming the country’s refugee policies. 

As a result, political refugees like Sophea and Soeum remain as vulnerable as ever. That was evident in February, when three Cambodian refugees who had planned a protest in Bangkok against Hun Manet were arrested along with their families. While lawyers successfully blocked deportations, the arrests highlight the precarious nature of life as a refugee in Thailand today.      

The Cambodian premier and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin appear to share an agenda to "crush voices of dissent on Thai soil," said Emilie Palamy Pradichit, founder and executive director of Manushya Foundation, a Bangkok-based human rights organization. “Instead of protecting human rights, Thai authorities actively participate in transnational repression, collaborating with authoritarian neighboring regimes like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, in silencing dissent.”

Making the rounds

Unless he is sick or busy, Soeum spends his mornings collecting food for monks, his family and his neighbors. 

It is dark when he wakes and still dark when he boards a crowded, airless bus populated by the poor who make this rich city run. By 6 a.m., Soeum has disembarked and made his way to a  small Bangkok pagoda. Ignoring the barking dogs, he takes a large cart from the temple’s grounds and pushes it over bridges and beneath a quiet underpass. By 6:30, Soeum is stationed at the market, standing alongside a monk who offers blessings in exchange for alms, which take the form of food. As the morning grows brighter, Soeum follows the monk up and down the sunbaked streets, transferring these alms to a bucket, hauling the food back to the cart in heavy sacks. It is hard work for anyone, let alone a man well into his forties, dressed in the trousers of an office worker.  

“I have a difficult life because I have no income and not enough food, so I have to go out walking with Buddhist monks to collect alms from laypeople,” said Soeum, who arrived in Thailand last August. A farmer and an opposition activist, Soeum escaped Cambodia after he was convicted of defamation for a Facebook post criticizing the local government’s response to a flood. Having escaped imprisonment in his home country, his new life is hardly any easier.  

He spoke as he worked, collecting the alms and transferring them to the cart. Inside sat packets of rice and sealed plastic water cups; bags of papaya salad and snacks and cakes and water bottles and green curry and jackfruit and biscuits. With any luck, by the end of the morning there would be enough inside that cart to feed the monks at the pagoda. Enough to help out — even just a little — at the Refugee Camp. 

But being out in public, walking through the streets in the bright light of day comes with risks, said Soeum. 

“When I accompany monks to ask for food, I am always afraid that the Thai police will arrest me.”  

The U.N.-issued refugee card held by Soeum can help him access medical care and schooling, it may eventually allow him to resettle elsewhere, but it cannot provide any particular protections. A refugee card is not a work permit and few want to risk breaking the law, leaving Soeum and his neighbors to survive off charity. 

“People are afraid to go out because they become like a cash cow for the police,” explained Nadthasiri Bergman, a Thai lawyer who has represented numerous asylum seekers. “They’re paid a lower wage, they’re extorted, they’re forced to live on donations. There’s so much indignity.” 

Representatives of Thailand’s national police and immigration bureau could not be reached for comment. 

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Sok Soeum follows a monk beginning his day collecting alms in Bangkok. (RFA)

Killing time 

While Soeum finished up his rounds one December morning, his neighbor Prak Sophea sat on the floor of her one-room flat and dug through a box until she found the folder she was looking for. She fanned out its contents, court documents and photos of security forces clashing with demonstrators near her home. Her eldest daughter, Bopha, looked at the pictures muttering “so cruel.” 

An outspoken activist, Sophea had for years protested a development project that had seen her lakeside home village carved up and handed to associates of former Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

In 2022 and 2023, at least ten of Sophea’s fellow protesters were charged with crimes like intentional violence and property damage. Last May, Sophea and two others were charged with assaulting district authorities, an allegation they deny. Believing she would soon face arrest, Sophea fled in August 2023. 

“Some people live in Boeung Tamok for 10 or 20 years and they still don’t give us land titles. They want to steal our land, they want to evict us,” Sophea said, her daughter at times translating for her.  

“If my mom doesn’t fight for justice, we’re homeless,” said Bopha, whose name has been changed for security reasons. 

As Sophea spoke about the struggles of activism, she rubbed her daughter’s back. The girl had arrived with her three younger siblings in September in part because they missed their mother and in part because Bopha started seeing authorities following her to school. Her father and grandmother stayed at their lakeside house, hoping to protect it. Instead, the protests continued and more arrests occurred. While the family’s home has yet to be razed, it’s an almost constant concern. 

“I want to know how they can give this land to those people even when we’ve all lived here so long,” Sophea asked.

Far from their home, family, friends and school, Sophea’s children face a circumscribed existence. They seldom leave the building and have almost never ventured out into larger Bangkok. As the eldest, with her good English and a smattering of Thai, Bopha occasionally accompanies her mother on a rare errand. Otherwise, the entire family mostly stays in the building, watching YouTube videos, looking after younger neighbors, filming impassioned monologues on justice for Facebook Live; waiting.  

“I have no idea how long resettlement will take,” Sophea said. “When I think about being here for three years or six years, I think it’s a lot of pressure because we can’t work and so we don’t have money to spend for the room or for food.”  

While Bopha is old enough to enroll in courses for young adults, her younger siblings must wait until May when the new term begins. 

“It will be better when I go to school because staying here is so stressful,” she said. While she spoke, one sister sat against the wall carefully painting her nails. The other kept their young brother entertained with a video. 

“Sometimes they cry. They really miss their friends back home. They want to go back.”  

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Cambodian migrants are detained by police in the eastern Thai province of Sa Kaeo, which borders Cambodia, in this image released May 13, 2021. (Royal Thai Army via AFP)

Friendly ties

While Thailand hosts nearly 100,000 registered asylum seekers, the vast majority of those are Karen refugees from Myanmar living in decades-old border camps that resemble small, sealed villages. There they face similar challenges, with many of the residents languishing without any chance of resettlement but with little opportunity to return home — particularly as fighting in Myanmar intensifies. 

Apart from the registered asylum seekers, there are millions more documented and undocumented migrant workers, many of whom might be classed refugees fleeing war (as in the case of neighboring Myanmar) or persecution. 

While Thailand’s new government has dashed hopes that the refugee convention would at long last be ratified, it launched a National Screening Mechanism, or NSM, in September. The NSM is a government registration process, ostensibly allowing for the legal recognition for asylum seekers. But rights groups say the program falls far short of providing adequate protection and could instead open asylum seekers up to even more risk of refoulement. It has also come under criticism for excluding documented migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. 

Political refugees like Sophea and Soeum could easily fail to gain legal status under the NSM, explained Pradichit of the Manushya Foundation.

“Given Thailand's collaborative efforts with neighboring countries to crack down on dissidents within Thai borders, political refugees may face rejection from the NSM under the pretext of 'national security,”’ she said.

Such concern is omnipresent for Heng Kem Ley, a Cambodian monk who has lived as a refugee in Thailand for two years. Most days he broadcasts on Facebook, speaking of political repression in his home country. That, he believes, has put him at risk of what might legally be termed extrajudicial rendition, but what he describes as: “they arrest, and then they push us into the car, and then they drive to the border and then they push to the Cambodian government.”

Cambodian officials have questioned the accounts of some refugees seeking political asylum, noting that those with pending court cases “cannot take refuge or seek asylum abroad to escape from justice,” as Chum Soumry, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put it in a message to RFA. 

Cambodia has extradition treaties/agreements with many countries, including Thailand,” he said.

In response to Kem Ley’s allegation, Soumry stressed: “The Cambodian government doesn’t have a policy to carry out any secret arrests of innocent Cambodians abroad.”

Still when the monk walks near the pagoda, when he makes his rounds collecting food for “my Cambodia refugee people,” he has the feeling of being watched. He tries not to let it scare him. 

“We fight for our democracy in Cambodia, we fight for our freedom,” he said. “If we’re afraid, we’re not going to win.” 

    

 Edited by Boer Deng and Jim Snyder. 

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