Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Rising tide of ‘urban refugees’

14 April 20150 comments
Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers are living not in camps, but in teeming and often inhospitable large cities around the globe.

Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, mostly in developing countries with little humanitarian infrastructure, there are now about half a million such ‘urban refugees’, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Unable to work legally and with no legal status in their host countries, they and others like them must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations from churches, aid groups and individuals.

Their children often do not go to school and spend entire days indoors.

Many asylum-seekers pin their hopes on an elusive prize: resettlement in a third country such as the US, Australia or Canada through a process overseen by the UNHCR. This can take five years or more, and it often doesn’t ever happen at all.

The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn’t legally recognise asylum-seekers or refugees.

It’s relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa, one reason the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to numbers from the UNHCR.

The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.

When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out. They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore UN letters declaring them to be “persons of concern.” Thailand never signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees’ rights; neither have neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.

So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo, freer than those in camp settings but in some ways more vulnerable.

“This is the future,” said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. “We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments.”

Despite the hardships, many say they will never return home. They are too afraid.

One Pakistani couple – their story recorded by the UNHCR – tell of having to flee their comfortable apartment, their middle class lifestyles and their jobs when a death threat signed by a Muslim extremist group with three bullets attached arrived.

As Christians, they had no option but to leave.

Now they live in a barren room in Bangkok, where the children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony.

The family no longer fears for their lives, but they face other fears — arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely.

“We just wanted to save our lives,” said the father, who has overstayed his visa and like the dozen other asylum-seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. “We didn’t know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive.”

Despite the hardships, they will never return home. They are too afraid.

“We’ll just face the same sort of threats again,” said the Pakistani mother. “I’m not willing to sacrifice my children for that,” the father said.

Sheree Peterson
AMES Staff Writer