While Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, due to its location and relative stability, it has hosted approximately 1.3 million refugees since it began working with UNHCR in 1975 (UNHCR, n.d.). Currently, Thailand is host to refugees from Myanmar fleeing the repressive government there as well as fighting between that government and rebel groups. There are approximately 140,000 Burmese individuals living in refugee camps and 2 to 3 million living outside of them in Thailand (Human Rights Watch, 2012a). In 2005, the Thai government stopped registering new arrivals (“Aid workers,” 2011), and it is estimated that only about 60% of the refugees in the camps are registered (Human Rights Watch, 2012a).
As Thailand has not ratified the Refugee Convention, it has no refugee law or asylum procedures. The Thai government considers most of the Burmese to be economic migrants, but research by the International Rescue Committee has found that many of them would likely qualify for refugee status (Green-Rauerhorst, Jacobsen, & Pyne 2008). Under Thai law, all foreign nationals without proper documents are considered illegal immigrants, and those who are not officially registered as refugees are considered in violation of Thai law (Human Rights Watch, 2012a). Those who are registered must remain in the refugee camps set up on the Thailand/Myanmar border and are not allowed to leave. If they do leave, they are considered to be in violation of the law and may be arrested and deported. As a result, these refugees are unable to seek employment or go to school outside of the camps, limiting their prospects for improving their lives and becoming self-sufficient.
Progress is being made in several areas. In 2008, changes to Thai law permitted the citizenship of all children born in the country, regardless of the status of their parents, thus reducing the number of children born stateless (UNHCR, 2013a). In 2005, resettlement to third countries began for a large number of the refugees, largely to Australia, Canada, and the United States (Human Rights Watch, 2012a). However, those who have been resettled were the more educated, for example, teachers and health workers, meaning those who remain are more likely to need assistance (Human Rights Watch, 2012b).
In 2011 and 2012, vast progress was made in peace talks between the Burmese government and rebel groups. The government also loosened its draconian hold on the country. This raises hope that refugees may be able to return home in the near future. Fortunately, Thailand is not pushing the refugees to hurry back but is allowing them to wait and see if this stability continues. Aid groups are beginning to change their assistance from survival needs such as food and shelter, to providing those in camps with skills to allow them to survive outside of the camp (Human Rights Watch, 2012a).