Vietnamese refugees in Thailand are facing delays in renewing identity cards issued by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Bangkok, and the pandemic-related suspension of processing has exposed many to the possibility of arrest by Thai authorities.
Tran Van Long, 64, originally from Dong Nai province, told VOA Vietnam, “My card has been expired for more than a week, but I called all offices and no one answered. Most cards of refugees here have expired like mine.”
Vietnamese authorities released Long after he served 20 years of a life sentence for joining a group the government considered reactionary. Due to police harassment, he said, he left Vietnam and the UNHCR granted him granted temporary refugee status in January 2021 after a years-long application process.
Long said he had been unable to contact anyone at the UNHCR office in Bangkok. “It is very difficult. They've been closed recently, so I couldn’t ask, and I couldn’t call them at all.”
According to BPSOS, a U.S. nonprofit organization that supports Vietnamese refugees in Southeast Asia, about 800 Vietnamese have been granted refugee status in Thailand, and an estimated 700 to 800 Vietnamese who do not have refugee status or have been denied refugee status are there as well.
Thailand’s 1979 Immigration Act considers asylum-seekers and refugees to be illegal immigrants, and this status subjects them to arrest, detention and deportation.
According to a UNHCR fact sheet from June 2021, some 578,000 people are “populations of concern” in Thailand, with the largest group of refugees residing in nine camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.
The Vietnamese refugees are just one group among hundreds of refugees in Thailand who live outside the camps in urban areas, according to the UNHCR, and “there is currently no national legal framework in place for the specific protection of ‘urban’ refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand,” according to the UNHCR fact sheet.
The UNHCR Regional Office in Thailand told VOA Vietnam via email that during the pandemic, the organization has curtailed its activities in line with World Health Organization advisories to curb the spread of the coronavirus. “In line with this approach, no in-person card extension activities will take place for this period and our UNESCAP Reception is closed,” it said.
The office said that for any individuals with UNHCR cards expiring during this period, UNHCR will automatically extend the cards until Feb. 28, 2022.
Duong Van Thai, 40, a former journalist based in Hanoi, belonged to the outlawed Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam. He fled the country after police threatened him for reporting on corruption.
He told VOA Vietnam that he and others “need a temporary residence registration with the local government here and they often check our valid UNHCR cards. Currently a lot of cards here are expired” posing a hardship for those who “need physical cards to show to the police for identity verification.”
An electronic renewal within that UNHCR system that remains inaccessible to the cardholders doesn’t solve the problem of a lack of current physical cards, Duong said, adding that he has sent requests to the UNHCR office via email but never received a response.
Vu Thi Truc Phuong, 40, fled persecution by the Ho Chi Minh City authorities after participating in anti-government protests in 2018. She received refugee status by UNHCR in early 2021 and told VOA that she wasn't too much concerned about her expired card.
“Only when it is absolutely necessary or urgent do I contact the office,” she said.