The reality of life for a refugee family hiding in Bangkok
A Syrian-Palestinian family has spent two years confined in a building and living in fear of arrest.
Tamim arrived in Bangkok two years ago after fleeing the war in Syria. Since then he and his 17 relatives have been virtual prisoners in a 65 square metre apartment, too terrified to go outside for food or medical treatment. The only furniture in their spartan home is a mattress on the floor and a TV that he and his family never turn on because they cannot afford the electricity bills.
CONFINED: Eighteen people live inside this 65 square metre apartment, afraid to go outside due to the fear of arrest or police extortion. The family, who fled war in Syria, do not hold passports and are living in Thailand on expired visas, hoping for resettlement. (Photos by Olmo Reverter)
The long history of Tamim's family being refugees actually started almost seven decades ago. Of Palestinian origin, his family fled Palestine when the state of Israel was created in 1948, displacing thousands from their lands, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe.
Ever since, the members of Tamim’s family have been stateless. As such, they don’t hold passports, but only travel documents. Nevertheless, Tamim was able to live a comfortable life in Syria for many years.
“I studied law and business administration. I was working for a Canadian company in Syria, I had money, farms and cars,” he told Spectrum.
But that life was turned upside down when the civil war between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the rebels broke out in 2011.
“The bombs destroyed everything I had,” he said, visibly upset. “First, I moved to an apartment that was later destroyed by a bomb. Then I moved to another apartment and a bomb destroyed it again. So it happened three times in a row.”
His bank accounts were frozen and Tamim only had US$700 to take his wife, his son and other family members far from a war that in less than five years has killed more than 200,000 people and has forced about four million refugees out of the country, according to the UN.
“There were more and more bombings and shootings every day, so we had to leave. We went to many embassies, including those of Arab countries, but they did not accept us. Only the Thai embassy provided us with a visa. We didn’t have any relatives in Thailand, we didn’t know anyone, but we had to leave if we wanted to survive,” Tamim explained.
Now, Tamim’s parents have to share a room with the three single men in the family. The others take turns to sleep on the sofa or the second room available.
Tamim has two sons, one aged 10 and another four months who was born in Thailand. In all, seven children live in the house. The children have had to learn how to play without making a noise, as everybody is afraid of being reported to the police by their neighbours.
Since they arrived in Bangkok, the children have not played outdoors and cannot attend school. Nobody in the family can leave the building, even to go to supermarkets or hospitals, because of the risk of being arrested by the police. However, on rare occasions they sneak out to meet officials handling their case, for other essential matters or simply to take a break.
Tamim was arrested for the first time along with six other Palestinians after police raids in Bangkok neighbourhoods where many Middle Eastern people live. It was only a few days after the Erawan Shrine blast on Aug 17 which killed 20 people, but he was never questioned as a suspect. “Fifteen agents came to the building with cameras at 6am,” Tamim said.
In all, 21 Palestinian refugees including 13 women and children were arrested after the bombing. The women and children were fined and released. The seven men were sent to court and held at the Immigration Detention Centre, where they were kept for 12 days in an overcrowded cell with little ventilation. They slept on a floor without mattresses or blankets until they managed to pay the 50,000 baht bail with the help of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and some individuals.
“They sometimes gave us pork [forbidden to Muslims] to eat,” Tamim said. “In my cell there were two elderly people and three small children from Afghanistan. They were aged three, four and nine and they didn’t stop crying.”
Despite being released, Tamim and other Palestinians can be re-arrested at any time and sent back to the detention centre.
In Thailand, there are more than 75,000 refugees and asylum seekers from different countries currently registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The numbers have been increasing in recent years because it is relatively easy to get a visa to Thailand.
But when their visas expire, all migrants with an irregular immigration status, including minors, may be arrested. This is because Thailand has not signed the 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees.
Tamim and his family had refugee status in Syria, but they had to start the process from scratch when they arrived in Thailand. The process has gone on for more than 18 months, so their initial visas have expired. They face mounting bills if they are caught overstaying their visas.
According to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign there are about 350 Palestinian refugees currently living in Bangkok. Most of them, such as Tamim and his family, are second-time refugees who fled the war in Syria and are living in Thailand while awaiting resettlement to a third country. The process usually takes at least 18 months. Tamim has not even made the first interview for the resettlement process. His protests, requests to UNHCR and the hunger strike that he staged a year ago asking to accelerate the resettlement of his family have not borne any discernible results. In most cases, resettlement to a third country is denied.
“It is not a right nor a given,” said Vivian Tan, the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Asia. “It is a limited solution because of the growing number of refugees worldwide as a result of simultaneous crises in countries such as Syria, Iraq and South Sudan.”
The number of places offered annually by 27 resettlement countries are limited and, according to the UNHCR, are given to less than 1% of total refugees globally.
Tamim’s 28-year-old cousin is an archaeologist, but his skills are being wasted. “After all I studied when I was in Syria I’ve just lost everything,” he said. “I cannot work. I have an education but I cannot do anything here.”
When Tamim’s family arrived in Bangkok in 2013, they rented a small apartment where the women and men were separated into two rooms.
On the third day, his 70-year-old grandmother went to hospital because she had breathing difficulties as a consequence of sharing a cramped room with nine people. She died a week later. They didn’t have the money to pay the bill to take her from the hospital.
“We didn’t know what to do. The hospital asked us to pay before taking her in the hospital. We prayed for her. Finally we negotiated a monthly payment,” Tamim said.
The family finally moved to a cheap apartment near an Airport Rail Link station where they have been living in confined conditions ever since. Currently they receive 2,500 baht in monthly aid from the UNHCR, a paltry amount which does not make ends meet considering monthly expenses for the 17 family members amount to 9,000 baht.
There are another 70 Palestinians from Syria living in the same building. “We were the first to arrive, the rest came because we were already here and it’s easier to come when you know someone,” Tamim said. Most of these people are living on charity or doing irregular work to survive. But sometimes they are stopped on the way from home to work and have to pay the police bribes bigger than the money they earn during the day.
“The police are trying to take advantage of our situation, they know that we live here. They set up a checkpoint and look for us. We don’t have money to pay. Every time that they catch us they demand 3,000 baht from us,” Tamim said.
“It’s very difficult and very dangerous. I can’t go to the supermarket; I ask a motorcycle driver to go to the supermarket for us. I cannot go to the hospital anytime. If I need to call a taxi I ask a motorcycle driver to get a taxi to come to the building. We cannot take cheap public transportation — police can stop us.”
In Thailand, migrants without papers from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos usually spend several days or weeks in jail if they are arrested and are then taken to the border for deportation. But refugee families from further away only have the option of paying to return to the countries they fled, or remaining hidden indefinitely, waiting for months or years for a chance of resettlement to a third country that may well never arrive.
“Since we came to Thailand, my grandmother died, we have had health problems and we can only eat once a day,” Tamim said. “I have two kids, and I don’t want them to go to prison. They are not getting any education; I do not know what will become of them in the future. If the war ends, I want to return to Syria.”
‘IT’S VERY DIFFICULT’: In all, seven children live in the house. They have had to learn how to play silently, so their neighbours won’t call the police.
WINDOW OF HOPE: Tamim’s family were forced to restart the process of applying for refugee status when they arrived in Thailand. Two years later, they are still waiting.