Pic: AP.

The Thai government has been holding six asylum seekers from Syria in Phuket for nearly a month and is refusing access to UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) representatives, according to a Human Rights Watch official. Phil Roberston, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said the asylum seekers were en route to Sweden via Beijing when they were stopped by Chinese immigration officials and sent back to Phuket (their last departure point) on January 13. The six individuals’ names and genders have not been made public, Robertson said, but human rights reps do know that four are Syrian and two are Palestinian. Authorities have not confirmed the exact location of the asylum seekers, but it is believed they are being held at Phuket International Airport.

The reason they were stopped in Beijing is unclear, but Robertson said it likely has to do with their travel documents. He said that human rights officials have heard that at least some of the detainees are on a hunger strike but that because the Thai government has not allowed interviewers to see them, little about their circumstances or condition is known. Among the unanswered questions is whether they are fleeing the ongoing violence in Syria, whether they are political dissidents, or are seeking asylum for other reasons.

“To date, the Thai government is simply failing to respond or reply to entreaties by UNHCR and Bangkok-based diplomats that they should immediately allow UNHCR to have access to this group,” Robertson said in an email. “The members of the group have contacted UNHCR independently and told officials there that they want to seek asylum – and so we’re puzzled why nothing has happened. This should be a straightforward matter of Thailand giving access for UNHCR to exercise its refugee protection mandate.”

Syria has been devastated by a civil war that began in 2011 and continues today. Regular reports of cruel and unthinkable violence, poverty and unrest paint a grim picture of the situation in the country, and millions have fled Syria for Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and countries farther abroad. Robertson said that some of those in the Thailand group have relatives in Sweden, which is why they had chosen to seek asylum there.

Robertson said the “wall of official silence raises serious concerns about what the Thai government is thinking regarding this group, and other persons fleeing the conflict in Syria. Thailand is far from perfect in its record of protecting asylum seekers and refugees, especially the so-called ‘urban refugees’ who come from around the world seeking temporary protection in Thailand.”

The country has been criticized especially with regards to the treatment of refugees from Burma (Myanmar), many of whom live in border camps with few rights and little access to education and employment. HRW and other human rights activists implored the Thai government to improve treatment of Muslim Rohingyas from Burma especially, and accused the Thai government of sending them directly into the snares of human traffickers.

The government’s refusal so far to grant UNHCR access to the asylum-seekers is a “a clear violation of Thailand’s international obligations,” Robertson said. The country never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means it cedes its rights regarding refugee status determination to UNHCR. But such behavior is not without precedent. HRW released a report in 2012 criticizing the Thai government’s handling of refugees, finding that “Thai refugee policies are not grounded in law and cause refugees of all nationalities to be exploited and unnecessarily detained and deported.”

As long as the six asylum seekers in Phuket are held without being allowed to speak with UNHCR reps, they have little legal recourse and cannot apply for refugee status or take steps toward establishing themselves in a new country. Indeed, they are at risk of being detained for months or years, according to Robertson, a cruel fate considering all they have likely been through already.

“Much of the rest of the world has recognized the critical importance of helping Syrians fleeing the rights abuses, political reprisals and violent civil war in their country,” Robertston said. “The least that Thailand can do is to undertake to receive the trickle of Syrian asylum seekers that come this far, and provide them with the chance to get the protection from UNHCR that they so desperately need. Thailand should not be hard-hearted in the face of such a crisis – and they should start by immediately releasing the six in the Phuket airport lock-up.”