Groups Send Letter to Prime Minister
(Bangkok, December 13, 2023)—The Thai Government should exempt people seeking protection under its National Screening Mechanism (NSM) from arrest, detention, and prosecution, Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch said today.
On December 12, 2023, the eve of the Global Refugee Forum, eight groups working with refugees in Thailand sent an open letter urging Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to grant an exemption from prosecution to NSM applicants under Section 17 of the 1979 Immigration Act. The National Screening Mechanism was established to identify and protect refugees in Thailand.
“In the current legal situation, refugees approaching Thai authorities for protection are facing the prospect of arbitrary arrest, detention, and even criminal prosecution under the Immigration Act,” said Patrick Phongsathorn, Senior Advocacy Specialist at Fortify Rights. “This violates refugee rights and drains the government’s already strained resources. As the Global Refugee Forum begins, the government can rectify this situation and signal Thailand’s commitment to protecting refugees.”
Section 17 of the Immigration Act states that “In a special case, the Minister [of Interior], by the approval of the Council of Ministers, may permit any alien or any group of aliens to enter and remain in the Kingdom under certain conditions, or may grant exemption from complying with this Act in any case.” Without this exemption, refugees in Thailand face criminal penalties under the Immigration Act, which prohibits unauthorized entry or stay in the country.
“Thailand should respect the international refugee law principle that refugees and asylum seekers should not be penalized for their illegal entry or presence when seeking protection,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee and Migrant Rights Director at Human Rights Watch. “We are proposing a commonsense solution to align Thailand’s Immigration Act with the spirit of the NSM regulation to extend protection to those who need it.”
The National Screening Mechanism was established by prime ministerial regulation on December 25, 2019, to offer “protected person” status to any foreign national in Thailand who is “unable or unwilling to return to his/her country of origin due to a reasonable ground that they would suffer danger due to persecution as determined by the NSM Committee.”
On March 27, 2023, Thailand’s Cabinet approved a regulation stipulating the procedure and eligibility criteria to be applied to anyone seeking status under the NSM. Based on this regulation, the mechanism came into effect as of September 22, 2023.
In December 2022, Fortify Rights raised concerns that regulations supporting the NSM needlessly and arbitrarily exclude certain people from protection in Thailand, including migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.
Although the regulation defers deporting people claiming protected-person status, it does not prevent their arrest, detention, or prosecution based on their immigration status. Moreover, given that the NSM is legally subordinate to the Immigration Act, the majority of refugees seeking protection under the NSM in Thailand would first face arrest, detention, and prosecution.
The Global Refugee Forum, held every four years, will take place from December 13 to 15 in Geneva. The forum is designed to support the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees. The compact has four objectives: to ease pressure on refugee-hosting countries, encourage refugee self-reliance, improve conditions in refugee countries of origin, and increase access to “third-country solutions,” such as resettlement. At the last Global Refugee Forum, in 2019, Thailand made several pledges to address refugee protection and statelessness.
In their open letter, published on December 13, eight groups working with refugees in Thailand said that granting refugees exemption from arrest, detention, and prosecution under the Immigration Act would, “signal Thailand’s commitment to the GCR framework for cooperation.”