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FOCUS September 2011 Volume Vol. 65

Women Urban Asylum Seekers

Valeria Racemoli

Half of all of the world’s refugees live in urban areas, such as Bangkok. But still, the vast majority of assistance to refugees remains in refugee camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) amended its Urban Refugee Policy in 2009 to, among others, encourage “host governments to accede to and respect the international refugee and human rights instruments and to adopt and implement appropriate domestic legislation,” and “to work closely with the national authorities, the police and judiciary, the private sector, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], legal networks, other civil society institutions and development agencies” in serving the needs of refugees in urban areas.1
The UNCHR has also adopted the Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) approach that “recognizes that the different groups to be found within any refugee population have varying interests, needs, capacities and vulnerabilities, and seeks to ensure that these are taken into full account in the design of UNHCR programmes.”2

Jesuit Refugee Service

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), founded in 1980 as an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, established the JRS Asia Pacific in 1981. From an emergency response to crisis, the work of JRS expanded towards a longer-term commitment. With diminished worldwide sympathy for refugees, they are now expected to wait in camps much longer, and are more likely to be rejected for resettlement. They face more unwelcoming reception in countries of first asylum. Thus, the long-term needs of refugees received increasing attention— education, culture support and the ability to participate in the decisions that shaped their lives besides the needs of food, medicine and shelter.
JRS Asia Pacific has expanded its assistance to forcibly displaced persons in eight countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Timor Leste, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. The number of people who share in the mission of JRS in Asia Pacific has grown to include one hundred thirty-seven employees and eight volunteers of different faith and cultural backgrounds.
Since the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ envisioned to see JRS working where no one else works and assisting people who are forgotten, JRS Asia Pacific is dedicated to serving, accompanying and advocating for refugees living in cities. The JRS Asia-Pacific urban refugee program (JRS-URP) began in 1990 in response to the basic survival needs, mainly of urban asylum seekers by providing services such as casework, social counseling, legal assistance, and community support to asylum seekers in the urban areas. The majority of the asylum seekers after registering with UNHCR are referred to JRS-URP for assistance.

Women Asylum Seekers in the City

Adhi has given up hope. When she left Sri Lanka with her four children in 2009 she did not know what to expect. All that she was looking for was a place where she could finally feel safe from the war that had been devastating Sri Lanka for the past twenty years. “The soldiers were coming almost every day so we were afraid for our safety. Therefore my husband went to get the tickets to come to Bangkok, but he was kidnapped so I came alone. I was not able to look for my husband when he disappeared. I was alone and the military were coming every day to my house. So at one point I decided to take the tickets and leave anyway to protect my children.”
She has been living in Bangkok and surviving alone with no access to work or the ability to provide for her children. For two years she has depended on the assistance of other organizations, and in March 2011 Adhi’s claim for refugee status was rejected by the UNHCR.
“My mother is in Sri Lanka. Sometimes she calls us. She also asks about the United Nations and if I received a decision. I didn’t tell her that the UNHCR rejected me because I didn’t want to upset her. I don’t explain to her everything that is going on here.”
Adhi is just one of approximately two thousand six hundred asylum seekers and refugees registered with the Office of UNHCR in Bangkok. Hundreds of them are women and girls who came to Thailand either with their family or alone. Once in Bangkok they have to survive and to provide for their children without any legal right to work or to health care, and depending only on the assistance and the benevolence of organizations and individuals.
Adhi is not alone in her wait for starting a new life. Muznah waited for one year for her interview with the UNHCR. According to the UNHCR Bangkok’s own informational pamphlet for asylum-seekers, the interview should occur within twelve weeks from registration. But after fleeing from Pakistan with her husband and children, Muznah has waited more than a year for her interview, and in that time her visa expired, causing her the constant fear of being arrested and detained. Thai law does not make any distinction between irregular migrants on one side, and asylum seekers and refugees that over-stay their visa, on the other. Thus, once their visas expire, they are at risk of getting arrested and indefinitely detained at Immigration Detention Centers.
Moreover, during their stay in Thailand most of the children are not able to continue their studies. While Thailand has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and recognizes the right to education for young asylum seekers and refugees, very few schools in Bangkok, mostly private international schools, are willing to accept them. Language barriers, the lack of understanding among Thai society of the specific needs of the urban refugee population, and the parents’ inability to pay the school’s fees without a steady income are some of the factors that make this right unattainable. The Bangkok Refugee Center (BRC), UNHCR’s implementing partner in Bangkok, provides informal education for refugee children, but asylum seekers can only attend once a week.

Wanting to Work

Nikou abandoned everything when she left Iran, at the age of 27. She left her family, her friends, and her university study in Graphic Design. She had to escape one year of arbitrary detention and torture. She arrived in Bangkok in February 2011 and attended her interview with the UNHCR at the beginning of May. Like many other asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok, Nikou spends most of her days doing nothing except wait for the UNHCR decision on her asylum application. The frustration of not knowing what will be of her future is doubled by the insecurity of her life in Bangkok and the total inability to provide for herself.
“I would love to have a job, but I can’t get one here. I spend all my time at home because I am afraid that the police will arrest me,” she said.
Being denied the right to gain an income under Thai law, urban asylum seekers and refugees in Bangkok are often left with no other choice but to join the informal economy to be able to provide for themselves and their dependents. Zarah Alih, the JRS psychosocial counsellor, knows very well the challenges that female asylum seekers and refugees have to face in Bangkok. She notes that most women who come to Bangkok get assistance from JRS Asia-Pacific for six months if they meet the ‘extremely vulnerable’ criteria. JRS Asia-Pacific provides housing assistance, economic assistance, referral for medical support and psychosocial counselling. However, once JRS Asia-Pacific stops its aid, the female asylum seekers and refugees are left without income. They sell their jewellery and when that money runs out, they come back to JRS Asia-Pacific. Once they realize how long they have to stay in Thailand and how long NGOs are able to support them, they know they will have to figure out something else. Some have resorted to “survival sex,” particularly for women with or without children, and girls.
While the UNHCR Urban Refugee Policy places high- priority on establishing an environment that allows urban refugees to be self-reliant “as a way of retaining their dignity,” it cannot be fully realized in Thailand because urban asylum seekers are not fully recognized by the Thai government. JRS Asia-Pacific tries to find ways for them to generate income as they struggle with language barriers (most of these women and girls do not speak English or Thai language), suffer from lack of previous work experience, and face security risks.
“We realize that due to the length of the Refugee Status Determination process (RSD) what we can do is actually insufficient to cover the whole stay in Thailand. That is why I try to point out activities for them but the challenges are many. Because of the risk of arrest we have encouraged income generation that happens at home. However, because of the same threat they often need to change apartments, thus making it difficult to keep the activity alive. Another challenge is represented by their lack of work experience. In the first session of a support group activity I ask them what they need. They need training. Even if they enjoyed the right to work legally, for many of them without any training their situation would not change,” Zarah said.
Based on her experience, Zarah finds that income-generating activities – like beading hijabs or sewing – are more than just a way to make money. Activities take their minds off of waiting day after day for a UNHCR decision on their cases. And increasing their ability to survive without assistance also improves their sense of self-esteem and confidence while preparing them for their future.

Alone in their Communities

Most refugees living in the city admit that it is an isolating existence.
“We never go to BRC. All the people there sit around, waiting and gossiping about each other,” said one teenage Sri Lankan refugee.
Isolation in the city is another factor with which women and girl asylum seekers and refugees have to cope with during their stay in Bangkok. Integration within the Thai society is almost impossible to reach because of the many legal, social and language barriers. But also inside the refugee community solidarity among the different nationalities is still in many cases only a distant dream.
Whenever she goes to BRC, Adhi knows that she has to ignore the men because other refugees will make up stories about her. She has to dress a certain way, or people will talk about her. But, her friend admitted, people talk and make up stories about one another because they have nothing but gossip to fill their time. After two years in Bangkok she knows how “difficult it is to make friends and create a community.”
Zarah has begun the process of developing female support groups in different refugee communities, but admits there are difficulties.
“I want them to understand that they cannot always rely on other organizations and that they are in the same situation and they can help each other. I want them to be supportive,” Zarah said.
Urban refugees are often forgotten. They live anonymously. They do not live in refugee camps, where much funding and media attention is focused. They try to exist invisibly until they are resettled. But the needs of urban refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women, are not invisible to anyone who cares to look closely. In reality, they suffer from a lack of assistance compared to refugees living in camps where most services are coordinated and provided for by many NGOs. Safety, support, work skills, income and fast resettlement—these needs are just hopes to many of the hundreds of women seeking asylum in Bangkok.
“No girl would come here and leave her country if she could stay there and live a normal life,” Nikou said. “It is very difficult to be alone here.”

Valeria Racemoli is the legal officer of the JRS Asia-Pacific.

For further information, please contact: Oliver White, Jesuit Refugee Service Asia-Pacific, 43 Soi Rachwithi 12, Victory Monument, Bangkok 10400, Thailand; ph (662) 2784182; fax (662) 2713632; e-mail:;


1. UNHCR policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas, September 2009, pages 5-6.
2. Ibid., page 7.