On 24 December 2019, the long-awaited National Screening Mechanism (NSM) for refugees was finalised and approved by the Thai Cabinet. The NSM follows the signing of the intergovernmental Memorandum of Understanding on the Determination of Measures and Approaches Alternative to Detention of Children in Immigration Detention Centers in January 2019, which represented a first step towards ending the immigration detention of children in Thailand. The NSM builds upon Thailand’s continued commitment to improve protection for refugees in Thailand in line with the pledge made by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the September 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. Together with the MOU, it provides an opportunity to strengthen the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers In Thailand, particularly freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.
Thailand has provided refuge to people fleeing war and conflicts from neighbouring countries, particularly those from Myanmar, since 1984. According to UNHCR, the countries currently hosts 93,333 refugees in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar borders. There are also approximately 5,000 urban refugees and asylum seekers from 40 different countries residing in Thailand.
Despite a large number of asylum seekers and refugees in its territory, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Thai Immigration Act, the only law overseeing the entry of non-citizens into its territory, makes no distinction between asylum seekers and undocumented migrants but defines all foreigners without valid documentation as illegal aliens– leaving asylum seekers and refugees vulnerable to arrest and indefinite detention.
Several UN Human Rights mechanisms have demonstrated their concerns over Thailand’s ad hoc approach to refugee policy, and encouraged the country to develop and implement a national legal and institutional framework for the protection of the concerned population. For example, the concluding observations on Thailand’s second periodic report to the Human Rights Committee on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted the need for the “speedy establishment of a screening mechanism for asylum seekers” applying for international protection. The approval of NSM is therefore a step forward and should be applauded.
However, there also have been concerns over the contents of this document. While it maps out a plan to establish a screening committee and screening procedures to grant a Protected Person Status to an eligible “alien”, it provides no clear criteria for conditions of application and approval for such Status nor a precise selection procedure for independent expert members for the Screening Committee. Questions around the ambiguity of “relevant agencies” who would provide necessary assistance and support to the people with Protected Person Status also remain.
For now, 180 days were given to develop a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) under the NSM before its implementation following the date of its official publication in the Government Gazette on 25th December 2019. IDC members and partners in Thailand are working collaboratively with the relevant government agencies to ensure that the SOP addresses the identified concerns and guarantees the necessary protections for refugees.