Legal Advocacy for Urban Refugees in Bangkok

7 minute read

I worked for six months at Asylum Access Thailand (AAT) as a Volunteer Legal Advocate (VLA). Asylum Access is a legal services organization based in San Francisco with offices in Bangkok, Thailand (my placement), Tanzania, and Ecuador. Asylum Access is currently opening its fourth office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

As a VLA, I provided direct legal services to urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand. Urban refugees are asylum-seekers - that is, people who seek refugee status before the United Nations Refugee Agency - who come from countries outside of Thailand. I practiced as a lawyer before the local offices of the United Nations Refugee Agency.

In my six months at AAT, I was responsible for over 40 clients, who came from Pakistan, Syria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Nepal. My most important responsiblity was to make sure my clients’ lives are not lost because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion.

The day-to-day office tasks included independently managing my heavy caseload, meeting with clients to anticipate client needs, drafting legal memorandae and affidavits in support of clients’ cases, conducting legal research on clients’ cases, helping clients understand their rights as asylum-seekers and refugees, and preparing clients for their refugee status determination interview at the UN Refugee Agency.

The refugee status determination process generally takes a long time, sometimes three to four years. Coming into the position at AAT, I understood that it would be unlikely for me to see a case be completed from start to finish. However, there was one exception in my caseload that I am delighted to share with you. One of my clients from Africa was granted refugee status within the six months that I was in Bangkok.

A few weeks after I initially met with my client, a police officer stopped my client on the street and asked for his papers. Because he had no valid visa, my client was unfortunately arrested and placed into an immigration detention facility. Generally, once the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) learns that a person of concern (i.e. an asylum-seeker) is in any of the Thai immigration detention centers, it expedites the case. This is what happened for my client – his interview date was expedited.

My client is a survivor of sexual assault in his home country. He was at first ashamed to talk about this experience with me, and he understandably refused to talk about the attack with UNHCR during his refugee status determination interview. If he had talked about this attack during his first interview, it would show even more profoundly his fear of returning to his home country.

After I had a series of conversations surrounding this issue, he has finally agreed to open up to the UNHCR about this incident, which I believe was the turning point in his case. The UN gave him a follow-up interview so that he could talk about these traumatic events, and just as I was returning to New York, I learned that he was granted refugee status and is now on his way to resettlement to a safe third country. I am very proud about this success story – I believe that because I met with my client in the Bangkok detention center, I was able to encourage him to talk about the traumatic events that happened to him in his life. Now he is on to a new life.

The Christianson Fellowship has undoubtedly helped me gain an international understanding through my work abroad, notably through my daily interactions with people from various countries. Because of the grant, I was able to work with an international non-governmental organization that provides legal services to individuals from many different countries.

My clients alone came from 11 countries, and I met with and provided information to other clients who came from a handful of other countries. I worked in an office with lawyers and staff from five continents. Further, through my work experience at Asylum Access, I gained new insight on how the United Nations, an international organization, operates its refugee program.

By meeting with clients on a daily basis from various countries, I learned about trends in persecution against my clients in their home countries. In certain parts of the world, many of the problems stem from religion. In other parts of the world, problems tend to stem from political opinion. For others, it’s ethnic problems. Whatever the problem is that is killing and damaging lives of thousands of innocent people worldwide, my work at AAT opened my eyes up to many other types of problems around the world.

Through my daily client interactions, I gained more of an international understanding of persecution. On a similar level, I learned more about intercultural communication by working with my clients through a translator on a daily basis. Sometimes certain things are lost in translation, and by working with people from different backgrounds I learned how to better communicate with each of them. I believe that these are practical skills that I can take with me and apply to the next international and intercultural context wherever I will be working.

By working with an office staff from all around the world, my international understanding of providing legal services has greatly increased. Learning asylum and refugee law in New York has provided me with a legal context that is grounded in United States law, coupled with general trends of problems that we see with asylum-seekers who flee to the United States. By working abroad, I heard stories of how my colleagues have faced different problems that I am not used to (whether it be legal, or just how to approach clients), and how each of them has been successful in his or her own cultural and national contexts.

I am grateful to have been able to work so closely with each of my coworkers, to have weekly conversations about our cases and to gain some new insight about how I can approach my cases in New York with an international legal framework. I am also equally happy to have had the opportunity to learn about each of these individuals on a personal level, and to develop deep intercultural friendships as well. I am confident that I will have these colleagues, and friends, from all over the world, for life.

I have also gained important international understanding by providing legal services to clients before the world’s largest international organization – the United Nations. The Refugee Agency of the United Nations provides refugee status determination interviews in Thailand. Since the Thai government does not support refugees in Thailand in any way, the United Nations Refugee Agency has an agreement with Thailand to process all refugee claims within the Thai borders. I have developed a deep understanding of how this international organization works to help refugees by granting them refugee status, when eligible, and then by working with embassies to resettle refugees to a safe third country.

Finally, I was working in Thailand amidst a large-scale political conflict, eventually leading to a coup d’état by the Thai military. By working in this volatile intercultural context, I learned how provision of legal services, and ultimately, the day-to-day activities in an office abroad, can be vastly different based upon the political situation in a particular environment.

For example, many demonstrations regularly took place in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok, which forced the United Nations to close its building and to cancel refugee status determination interviews; some demonstrations had been deadly, so this move was understandable. Many of my clients’ interviews were cancelled and postponed for months, and it was my role to be the intermediary between the United Nations and the client.

Because many of my clients do not speak English or Thai, it is rather impossible for them to understand what political situation was taking place. Many were scared, and did not know if they should even leave their apartment. Further, in such a volatile environment, we had to be completely prepared for the worst. For example, when the coup d’état was announced and a curfew was set in place, we had to close the office and cancel all interviews for the next few days. I had never worked in an environment like this, but it helped me understand the sorts of issues that international organizations such as AAT may face.

I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the InterExchange Foundation for your support during this endeavor. I am a proud Christianson Fellowship alumnus, and I now will work to be an advocate for the Foundation, and in particular, for this grant. I will take the knowledge that I have learned from my experience with AAT and move forward in life to serve as a human rights defender.

Andrew D. By

Andrew volunteered in Bangkok, Thailand with the help of a Christianson Fellowship, from the InterExchange Foundation.

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