The Mae La camp in Thailand (Mikhail Esteves)

If you think Europe is failing refugees, look at Asia

I could *personally* house more refugees than Japan is, and Thailand is actively hostile to them.

When I met Kashif in September 2014, he was 14. He was an asylum seeker from Pakistan and an inmate at the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center. His prospects for freedom were grim, and his sentence was indefinite. “Maybe three, four, five years,” he told me. He didn’t care where they sent him after, as long as it wasn’t Pakistan. “If we go back, they will shoot us.”

Kashif’s crime? Overstaying his visa.

Much has been written about Asia’s obstinance on refugees. Last year, Japan rejected 99 percent of the asylum seekers at its doors, accepting just 27 people. China currently hosts just a little over 300,000 refugees, and all but around 700 of them were displaced during the Vietnam War; as of last year, nine were Syrian. South Korea admitted three Syrian refugees, while granting precarious “humanitarian visas” to 670 others. And Thailand, which hosts more than 100,000 Burmese refugees in rural camps, seems to prefer its refugees that way: walled off.

While North American and European governments have come to political crisis over the issue of whether to take in refugees, Asian leaders have been immune to criticism from either side, largely because they haven’t received much pressure domestically. If pro-immigration policies are a non-starter in parts of the West, they barely register as a talking point in East and Southeast Asia.

“The immigration debate in Japan has largely died out, mainly because the prospect of large-scale permanent immigration was simply too daunting for most Japanese,” writes Tokyo-based human rights lawyer Saul Takahashi for openDemocracy. “Since refugees were linked with economic migrants in the minds of many in the public, what little debate there was on refugee protection in Japan is also disappearing.”

If you’ve traveled in Asia, you’ve probably noticed the various ironies of daily life and society at large. Attitudes toward foreigners is one of them: Developed countries there have embraced globalization and welcomed tourists, but they balk at the notion of a multicultural society. Some Japanese could hardly entertain the idea of a half-black beauty queen. Despite its internal multiculturalism, China has a deep sense of sovereignty and suspicion toward Muslims with real or perceived (as in the case of the Uighurs) foreign ties. Thailand, one of Asia’s most developed countries, is a kingdom proud of the fact it was never colonized like its neighbors, and Thai society harbors disdain toward migrant laborers from Laos and Myanmar.

It also has a habit of ignoring the designation of “refugee” or “asylum seeker” granted by the U.N. refugee agency. When police learn of the presence of irregular immigrants—whether they have UNHCR paperwork or not—they’ve been known to bust down doors and haul people away, sometimes separating families or taking babies and children, like Kashif, with them.

Thousands of children and their families land each year in the purgatory of Thailand’s immigration system, an invisible bureaucracy that offers two options: Go home and face your persecutors, or stay here and wait for a third country to take you. “Here” is the Immigration Detention Center, a gender-segregated facility that Human Rights Watch has described as “filthy, overcrowded cells without adequate nutrition, education or exercise space.”

Alice Farmer, the lead investigator of a bleak 2014 Human Rights Watch report, said the conditions of Thailand’s detention of children violate international law. But to her it also crosses lines of moral decency. “To me the idea of a child getting used to indefinite detention in those kind of conditions was heartbreaking,” she said. “When children are detained at a young age, they don’t really understand what is happening to them.”

Kashif (whose surname I’m withholding to protect him) and his family are members of a persecuted Pakistani minority who fled for their lives as refugees. They found a cheap flight to Bangkok and overstayed their visas waiting for their asylum claims to process through a backlogged UNHCR system. They were captured by authorities and taken in black trucks to Bangkok’s detention center, off a leafy side street in the middle of the city.

He was not allowed to go to school. Locked in the men’s ward, he wasn’t allowed to see his mother, either. Nor his sisters, who spent a few days a week across the alley in a two-room school operated by an international relief organization. Instead, Kashif would read a little, sleep a little, eat his daily ration of rice and soup and wait for Mondays. That’s when, for two hours, he could see his mother. No one knew how many years his family would have to wait to be resettled.

In April 2015, Kashif and his family were released back into Bangkok. My understanding is that the police need to be seen as tough on immigrants, so they launch periodic crackdowns. On the flip side, there’s only so much space in the detention center. So some refugees are cleared out to make room for the new arrivals. I don’t know if Kashif and his family have been resettled in a third country, but it’s not likely. Only 6 percent of the refugees in Thailand were referred for resettlement in 2015, the majority coming from rural Burmese camps.

To be fair, Japan is the second-largest donor to UNHCR, behind the United States. But while the U.S. resettles more refugees than any other country by a lot (73,011 in 2014), Japan, with the third-largest economy in the world, barely takes in any (23 in 2014).

“Despite the region’s economic achievements and aspirations for global power and influence, most Asian countries are locked in by myopic state-centrism with respect to humanitarianism, as well as backwardness in adopting international standards and laws that promote human rights,” writes Katharine H.S. Moon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They tend to hold a narrow view of sovereignty, deterring them from accepting and implementing such global norms.”

I think antipathy is another part of it. Antipathy not dissimilar to the sentiments that led to razor wire at the Hungarian border and a white nationalist at the top of the Republican presidential ticket.

What else would compel a society to cage children?

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