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One Night in Bangkok, 500 Years in a Refugee Camp

Samy is in Bangkok—over 100 miles away from the one place he’s ever legally allowed to be. After Google Latitudes abruptly alerted me...

Samy is in Bangkok—over 100 miles away from the one place he’s ever legally allowed to be. After Google Latitudes abruptly alerted me to the situation, we decided he should try to make the most of his clandestine stay in the Thai capital, and find out if the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees field office there could help him out. The UNHCR in Bangkok was near the top of my ever-expanding list of agencies and organizations to call anyways, so I tracked down the number and gave them a call.

If ever I’ve lived a comedy of errors, this was it.

Calling them, of course, presented me with a near-impenetrable language barrier: I would introduce myself, there would be silence. I’d manage to get across my name, "New York" and sometimes "journalist," and I’d be transferred. I’d be halfway through a sentence, and I’d be transferred again. With a surge of relief, I’d realize I’d finally found someone who spoke decent English—then I’d be transferred again.

Over the course of a half an hour, I called the office 10 times. I felt terrible for the poor receptionist who, by the fifth call, was forwarding me at my first Anglo-fied syllable. And then, finally, I reached Kitty. Kitty McKinsey is the spokesperson for the UNCHR in Bangkok, and though she carried a tone like someone giving a tourist directions for the third time in a row, she was extremely helpful. She outlined the process that ideally changes Samy's status from a stateless, placeless person to a stateless person with "displaced" status—the first step in getting him home.

It goes something like this:

After Samy crosses the border as an asylum seeker in Thailand, he must do a “prescreening” with the Provincial Admission Board. That’s the Thai authority that determines whether or not an asylum seeker is eligible for refugee status in the first place. Excuse me—"displaced person’" status. See,Thailand is one of the few nations that hasn’t signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that legally defines who can be classified as a refugee and what his or her rights are according to internationally agreed-upon guidelines. Essentially, Thailand’s policy is to treat refugees as illegal immigrants, McKinsey tells me, but they make an exception for Burmese refugees. Which is why they set up the PAB.

After Samy's prescreening at the PAB—a process that was frozen for years, and is only recently back up and running, according to Kitty—he can then be approved for registration with UNCHR. And then he’s eligible for resettlement to the United States.

So, we need to make sure Samy is signed up with PAB. And therein lies the problem. This is completely up to the Thai authorities, which are responsible for deeming someone who’s fled Burma a "displaced person." No international body, not the U.N., and not the United States government can make this determination. And it’s the first step. So it’s up to the Thai government, which begrudgingly accepts asylum seekers, to put Samy on the list. And if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. Nobody can force their hand.

I ask if there’s anything I can do to speed the process. Kitty McKinsey tells me not to bother, and that in fact, it’d be better not to. “If you push hard, they may smile at you, then put his name at the bottom of a list and he won’t get out for five hundred years,” she says. She also told me to tell Samy to get back to the camps ASAP, or the outcome could be similar—or worse.

This is the first time where something really sunk in: I might not be able to do anything at all. He could simply be left at the whims of capricious Thai authorities. It’s the first time that I feel that this problem may indeed not be solved with sheer optimism, a willingness to make phone calls late at night, Samy’s resourcefulness, and some savvy allies. All it takes is a bit of overeagerness, good intentions, and a stubborn Thai official who makes a few notes in the margins, and Samy’s going nowhere.

In other words, the seriousness of this operation just got shaded in.

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