UNHCR in Thailand

The RTG, together with international agencies and non-governmental organizations, as well as other governments and private donors, have a long tradition of working together to address the protection, assistance and durable solutions needs of successive influxes of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and beyond.

UNHCR has been present in Thailand since 1975, and won its second Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 in part for its humanitarian and non-political efforts in South East Asia arising from the “boat people” crisis which impacted not only Thailand but the entire region. In 1998, the RTG requested UNHCR’s assistance for the protection of refugees from Myanmar on the Thai/Myanmar border. At present, Thailand continues to host some 81,241 refugees (as of June 2024) from Myanmar in the nine RTG-run temporary shelters on the Thai/Myanmar border, in addition to approximately 5,500 urban refugees and asylum-seekers from over 40 countries, and some 480,000 persons registered by the RTG as stateless.

Since October 2016 over 1,000 refugees in the temporary shelters on the Thai-Myanmar border have returned to Myanmar through the Facilitated Voluntary Return programme led by the governments of Thailand and Myanmar with the support of UNHCR and other partners. However, as the large majority have not come forward to apply for return, UNHCR continues to work closely with the Thai and Myanmar governments, refugee community and other stakeholders to unlock a multi-solutions approach to find a dignified, sustainable and comprehensive end to this situation of protracted encampment.

At the same time, UNHCR continues to advocate for international protection to continue to be extended to those who need it while maintaining its focus on delivery of protection activities including facilitating refugees’ access to the Thai justice system, addressing child protection concerns through its partner and conducting activities to prevent and respond to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV).

For urban refugees and asylum-seekers, UNHCR hails the Thai Cabinet’s approval in December 2019 of a Regulation to implement a screening mechanism to distinguish people who need international protection from economic migrants.

While the Regulation is not a conventional asylum law, once established, it is hoped that the screening mechanism will lend some predictability to—and increase the protection space for those who need it.

Moreover, following the RTG’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on alternatives to detention for children in January 2019, significant progress has been made in securing access to alternatives to detention, especially for children and their mothers. Implementation of these measures, in line with pledges made by the RTG at the first ever Global Refugee Forum held in Geneva in December 2019 shows strong, tangible commitment to the Global Compact on Refugees, a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

At present, UNHCR continues its full complement of protection and assistance activities for urban refugees and asylum-seekers including undertaking refugee status determination, the provision of emergency/life-saving health care, legal and social counseling, as well as psycho-social support. We also support access to education, including Thai language classes, and provide financial and other material support to refugees and asylum-seekers, including in detention through its partner, as well as pursuing durable solutions for the most vulnerable cases.

Finally, UNHCR is helping Thailand’s ongoing efforts to resolve the nationality status of some 480,000 persons registered by the RTG as stateless.  Following important reforms to Thailand’s nationality and civil registration laws, and the adoption of a progressive nationality strategy to address statelessness, over 100,000 registered stateless persons have acquired Thai nationality since 2008, with the RTG making pledges to take further action to reduce statelessness at the global High-Level Segment on Statelessness in Geneva in October 2019.

UNHCR works with an NGO partner in support of the Thai authorities to provide legal support to stateless persons in applying for nationality and prevent statelessness in three districts of Chiang Rai Province.  The project has engaged government officials at the district level, school principals, community leaders as well as local civil society, who have also been working on the issue of statelessness.

There are approximately 120 national and international staff working for the Thailand operation based in Bangkok and two field offices in Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot. In 2020 the Thailand operation expanded its coverage to include Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam. In Cambodia, UNHCR will support the Government in its efforts to implement a national asylum system, through capacity building. It will aim to facilitate an increase in refugees’ access to rights, as well as their inclusion in national systems.

Additionally, prevention of statelessness will be supported through the capacity building and training of government officials involved in civil registration activities. In Viet Nam, UNHCR will continue to invest in the continuing progress being made to address statelessness in terms of reduction, law and policy reform, and possible accession to the to the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions. This will be done through the implementation of projects with the Ministry of Justice, as well as provision of technical support to develop a Strategic Plan and Analysis to address statelessness.