Long way home

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees. Photo courtesy of Government of Canada

Twelve year old Ali*, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, has resided with his family of eight in Thailand for five years. The preteen speaks Thai fluently and to his Thai football mates, he is very much Thai despite his Middle Eastern looks.

A Thai Muslim school took pity on his family, and Ali is allowed to sit in with the rest of the class to learn Thai.

Financial support from relatives and handouts from charity organisations have made it possible for his extended family to reside in Bangkok. While he has obviously assimilated into the Thai culture well, the thought of Thailand being transitory gets him into a melancholic mood.

“There is very little I don’t like about Thailand, and so I feel bad at the thought that I cannot make this my permanent home,” remarked the youngster as he took a break from playing football. “My family is waiting to get resettled but they tell me it will take a while.

“The thought of how much longer makes me feel frustrated. To let off stream, I play football.”

Ali is one of over 5 million refugees who fled Syria — and among the 65 displaced peoples in the world. For World Refugee Day today, Ali hopes people around the world will show more compassion to anyone fleeing political, religious or other types of persecution.

Sharing her thoughts on the day the world honours the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence, is Dana Graber Ladek, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency.

“World Refugee Day for IOM means that globally we can recognise a very serious situation in terms of people fleeing their homes and what the international community can and should be doing in response to that,” she said. “We are in a time of unprecedented mobility. We have over 65 million people who have fled their homes and some of these people remain displaced within their country.

“Others flee to international borders and become refugees outside their country. It is a very serious situation when we think of an increased number of people who are being forced to leave their country while at the same time we are having an increased anti-migration and anti-refugee sentiment among many people and many countries. So it makes for a very difficult situation for these refugees who simply want a safe place to live.”

Migrants in wooden boats wait to be rescued by a Save the Children crew from the ship Vos Hestia in the Mediterranean sea, off the Libyan coast, on Sunday. Photo: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

She said the situation is such that countries traditionally open to refugees are starting to close their doors. Countries in Europe are getting much less tolerant. The US is a perfect example of such sentiment, where the percentage of refugees that are estimated to be accepted for next year have been cut down to half of the original number.

For example, she said the US will receive 1,800 refugees from Thailand next year, which is half the number they received for fiscal year 2017.

Canada, one among a handful of countries that continues to welcome refugees with seemingly open arms, has been an exception. They have become a beacon of hope in a world where you see increased anti-refugee sentiment, said Ladek.

Sharing figures to support her claim, she noted that between January 2015 and April this year, Canada admitted more than 77,000 people in all three refugee categories (privately sponsored, government assisted and blended sponsorship).

The Annual Levels Plan for 2017 indicates Canada will resettle 7,500 government-assisted refugees, 16,000 privately sponsored refugees and 1,500 refugees through the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program.

On the current situation of urban refugees in Thailand, she said this group is made up of 13 nations; the few notable countries include Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia.

After the UNHCR determines that an asylum seeker can be given refugee status, IOM takes over their case. She admits they are often misinformed about the time it takes to both be given refugee status and get resettled.

Ladek said there are currently 4,132 urban refugees and 3,316 asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR office in Bangkok. She noted that globally only one in 10 who apply for refugee status are actually resettled. So the chances that an asylum seeker will get refugee status and be resettled is low, and the process is quite time consuming.

One of many programmes refugees participate in prior to getting resettled in Canada. Photo courtesy of International Organization for Migration

Ayesha Rekhi, counsellor for political and economic affairs at the Embassy of Canada in Bangkok, said that despite growing anti-refugee sentiments “resettling refugees is a proud part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition”.

“Welcoming refugees and immigrants has long been central to Canadian values of diversity, inclusion and peaceful pluralism. For Canadians, we know that when we welcome and support the integration of newcomers we are building our society, our culture and our economy.”

Rekhi said her government understands diversity and inclusion takes effort when it comes to assimilating refugees and immigrants into Canadian culture and society.

Local Canadians have also thrown their support behind this endeavour. She explained: “Our programme of private sponsorship where friends and neighbours come together to commit their time and money to support refugees building new lives in communities in Canada is a source of pride and helps refugees weather the experience of arriving in a new country.”

Rekhi said immigrants or refugees arrive in a new country equipped with hope and challenges. Hurdles are part and parcel of this experience, which commences in some cases with facing up to their first winter, the joys of searching for a job and the emotional experience of loss of home.

During this period of integration, she said support in the form of sponsoring groups, government and community services and more are at their disposal.

“The fact of Canada’s diversity, which we see in our neighbourhoods, schools and even our grocery stores also means that while Canada may be a foreign country when a refugee arrives, there are some connections to and some comforts of home which are visible and present,” she said.

Speaking about her own background, she remarked: “I am the child of immigrants. My parents came from India because of religious intolerance and Canada gave them the freedom to marry. Their first winter was a shock, my mother’s first job a source of pride and relief and their confrontations with discrimination whether subtle or overt were disheartening. And now some 45 years later, I, their daughter, represent the country that offered them the possibility of building a life together. My story is a very Canadian story.”

On how Canada has managed to keep their country safe from terrorist attacks during one of the most volatile times in history, she said security screening is a crucial component of the overall assessment of whether a person is admitted to Canada.

“The government of Canada is committed to the safety and security of the Canadian public. All refugee claimants undergo health and security screenings, including biographic and biometric checks as well as the initiation of security and criminality checks to ensure that they do not pose a security threat to Canada.”

Asked to share a couple of reasons for Canada’s success with receiving refugees, Rekhi said as 2017 marks 150 years of Canada’s confederation, “it is a moment to celebrate Canadian identity, a hallmark of which is our ethnic, linguistic, cultural and regional diversity”.

“Canada was the first country in the world to adopt a policy of multiculturalism 45 years ago and we have had legal protections in place including through our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which turned 35 years old this year.

“We are not perfect. We also recognise historic wrongs with regret and are consistently looking for ways to address these with greater respect. We know that inclusion takes effort and work.”

* Names were changed to protect identities.

Since 2004, IOM has resettled 134,317 refugees to 13 countries. Of that number, 5,693 were resettled in Canada.

From January to May this year, IOM resettled 1,658 refugees, including 149 to Canada.

Up to 95% of refugees are resettled from refugee camps with the remaining 5% being urban cases.

The top three destination countries are the US, Australia and Canada.

Nearly half-a-million refugees have been resettled since IOM Thailand began operations in 1975. Today, the majority of refugees come from Myanmar.

Thailand is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocol. Due to its immigration laws the vast majority of people seeking asylum and recognised refugees are likely to be illegally resident in the country and are regarded as illegal migrants.

Refugees from Myanmar are a notable exception and are allowed to live in Thailand on condition of remaining in the refugee camps, officially known as temporary shelter areas, along the Thai/Myanmar border.

Countries of origin of asylum seekers, refugees, and those awaiting registration include: Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia, Iran, China, Cambodia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo and Egypt.

Thailand tends to be the destination of choice as tourist visas can be obtained without much difficulty due to the country’s liberal visa procedure.