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A journey with urban refugees in Bangkok

  • 27 August 2018


Some days I feel like a people trafficker, though I'm not making a zack out of the trafficking. Other days I see myself as a latter-day Oskar Schindler. But mostly I just feel trapped along with the 1000 refugees and asylum seekers I'm doing my not-very-successful best to get the hell out of an open prison called Bangkok.

Their key features are well known — there are between five and six thousand men, women an children living as 'urban' refugees and asylum seekers (who don't have status as refugees conferred by the UNHCR); they are escapees of state-permitted persecution, from Pakistan, South Sudan, Iran, parts of Africa, even Vietnam — the tribal Montagnards collaborated with the Americans during the Vietnam War, and the Communist Vietnamese government won't forgive or forget that.

They aren't to be confused with the tens of thousands of tribal people from Myanmar who have been in camps along the Thai/Myanmar border for decades. Most don't want resettlement in a third country but to return to their own once the conflicts that drove them out are settled.

The Bangkok-based group live in neatly cared-for derelict conditions; they are prevented from working by Thai Immigration authorities; they spend most of their lives behind locked doors in tiny five-by-six metre 'apartments' that have one bed that often sleeps five or six people. Many of the children have no opportunity for schooling and sit at home all day watching movies on mobile phones.

They have a tiny toilet/bathroom area to satisfy the needs of all occupants; meals are prepared on a gas stove that is worked on a small veranda; a fan is all there is to bring relief from the tropical heat. And they venture out of their lodgings — which remain locked to keep visiting police at bay — only at night or when they know the circling police are unlikely to meet them on the streets or in shops. So far, so predictable.

When I was even more innocent and unworldly than I am now, I was introduced to an author who wrote the best books of Christian spirituality I have ever read and contemplated. Sebastian Moore was an English Benedictine who died at 97 in 2014. The first book of his that I read was No Exit which appeared in 1970 and seems to no longer be available. In it, he drew on his encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature (he studied