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Thailand Has A Mixed Record When It Comes To Asylum Seekers and Refugees


Australia's foreign minister, Marise Payne, has praised Thailand's government for its decision to allow a young Saudi woman fleeing her family to seek asylum in Australia instead of deporting her as originally planned. But Payne also made it clear that Australia wants to see the release of a Bahraini soccer player granted asylum in Australia currently in a Thai jail. Michael Sullivan reports on Thailand's mixed record when it comes to asylum-seekers and refugees.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hakeem Al-Araibi is a Bahraini football player granted asylum in Australia two years ago. Late last year, he got married, got a visa and got on a plane for Bangkok with his wife for their honeymoon.

NADTHASIRI BERGMAN: He was planning to go to Phuket to see a beautiful beach - you know, just take some time off from his football playing in Australia.

SULLIVAN: He didn't make it. His Thai lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman says when he stepped off the plane in Bangkok, Thai police were waiting for him.

BERGMAN: And a Thai authority told him that because he's wanted from another a country for an alleged crime, he was denied entering into Thailand.

SULLIVAN: He's been in jail awaiting possible extradition to Bahrain ever since. Never mind his refugee status in Australia. Never mind the crime he allegedly committed - vandalizing a police station - occurred at the same time he was finishing a live televised soccer match. Never mind his claims he was tortured in Bahrain before fleeing to Australia.

PHIL ROBERTSON: It's been a very, very bad four years for refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand.

SULLIVAN: That's Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He says the military government that seized power here in 2014 hasn't been shy about doing deals with authoritarian governments to send people back. Eighteen-year-old Saudi Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was headed in that direction before she seized the social media spotlight and created a PR nightmare for the Thai government. But he says others have fared much worse.

ROBERTSON: We have seen Uyghurs sent back to China. We saw an ethnic Han Chinese activist couple sent back to China despite the fact that Canada had already informed Thailand that they were going to be resettled to Canada. We've seen human rights activists who are registered with the U.N. Refugee Agency sent back to Cambodia, sent back to Vietnam.

SULLIVAN: And he's worried it won't stop. But the military doesn't get all the blame. Things weren't that great before the coup either.

MATTHEW SMITH: We have documented how the Thai authorities have not only failed to protect refugees but have in some cases bought and sold tens of thousands.

SULLIVAN: Matthew Smith of the human rights group Fortify Rights.

SMITH: The authorities were involved in the trafficking of huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. And so protection for refugees has been a really serious issue in this country for a long time.

SULLIVAN: His colleague Puttanee Kangkun says there's a reason for that.

PUTTANEE KANGKUN: Thailand has - until now, still have no actual protection of the law. Let's say a law or policy that really gives protection to the refugees.

SULLIVAN: But rights groups also say Thailand deserves credit for taking in refugees at all in a neighborhood where many have fled their countries fearing for their safety. More than 100,000 from neighboring Myanmar are still in camps on the Thai-Myanmar border. Earlier waves included Vietnamese boat people, ethnic Hmong fleeing persecution in Laos and Cambodians trying to escape the Khmer Rouge - Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights.

SMITH: There are people in the government who want to do the right thing, and they want to protect refugees. But there's still a lot of work to do.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BETA BAND'S "B+A") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.