Prachatai has obtained copies of confidential documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its normal clandestine channels. (The old lady on the corner wraps kluai thot in them.) These unverified papers reveal negotiations on a draft secret agreement for Thailand to accept asylum-seekers from the UK.
A similar plan would have deported refugees who crossed the English Channel in small boats to Rwanda, but this has run into legal and logistical trouble, even though the Rwandan government has already been paid millions of pounds for its role in the scheme.
Under the plan, selected asylum-seekers, who come from a wide range of countries across the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, will be transported to Thailand as a safe ‘third country’ where their asylum claims will be adjudicated. They will have no choice in this.
Those who are granted asylum will then be given permission to stay in Thailand as bona fide immigrants – as long as they report to Immigration every 90 days. They would not be allowed to return to the UK. (It is not clear what will happen to refugees whose asylum claims are rejected in Thailand. Thailand wants to be able to send them back to the UK, but the UK says this defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.)
The UK government is keen to set up programmes like this, ostensibly to deter would-be asylum-seekers from attempting life-endangering crossings of the English Channel and to thwart the activities of people smugglers. UK ministers have consistently expressed this in terms of ‘breaking up the business model’ of the traffickers, as if this was primarily an undesirable commercial activity rather than a blatant violation of human rights.
The Conservative Party is also keen to appease its right wing who argue that immigration into the UK (the vast bulk of which is legal) is far too high and must be cut back. A high-profile dodge like this would provide ample opportunity for positive headlines in the Daily Mail and Telegraph.
The Rwanda plan, whose entire cost has not been revealed by the UK government, came unstuck when the courts ruled that Rwanda was not a safe place for refugees. In this, they agreed with the British ambassador to Rwanda, who noted the murders and enforced disappearances of government critics and widespread suppression of free speech under the quasi-dictatorship of President Paul Kagame. The UK Foreign Office itself wrote ‘Our recommendation … would be not to pursue Rwanda as an option.’
In 2018, a dozen or so Congolese refugees in Rwanda were shot dead by security forces over a protest about food, something the Rwandan ambassador in London dismissed by saying ‘Yes, it might have happened, but so what?’
And while UK government lawyers were arguing in court that Rwanda was a safe country that respected human rights and the rule of law, UK police were warning Rwandan exiles in the UK to be on their guard against hit squads despatched by the Rwandan government to deal with its political opponents.
An earlier little-publicized arrangement between Israel and Rwanda saw about 4000 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan shipped to Rwanda. Many were almost immediately deported across the border to Uganda, from where they restarted their journey as refugees. Israel suspended the arrangement.
In its latest attempt to get the scheme moving, the Sunak government has drafted a law that turns Rwanda into a safe destination which respects human rights just by saying so. It also denies prospective deportees the right to make appeals based on human rights.
The internal MFA documents reveal that Thailand sees a number of advantages from joining Rwanda in a similar scheme, or even replacing it.
In the wake of negative headlines in the international media about 50-year sentences just for saying something (and sharing a BBC documentary), Thailand desperately needs a boost to its human rights image, especially since it has, perhaps recklessly, made it known that it wants a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. This effort may have a better chance if it can point to a UK law that says the human rights are respected in Thailand, even when it clear that they are not.
The amount of money involved has also attracted the attention of some members of the governing coalition. The tourist uptick after Covid has not been as strong as hoped and many hotels still have worryingly low occupancy rates. A monthly UK government cheque for putting up asylum-seekers could be very profitable for lawmakers and their friends in the hospitality industry.
Thailand’s record on adjudicating asylum claims is almost non-existent, so the judiciary feels justified in calling for more money for training, study tours to the UK and so on, so the courts are supportive.
There will also be a need for interpreters who can speak Kurdish or Pashto or Albanian and so on. Currently, these are virtually non-existent in Thailand. A number of university language departments are eager to produce these, with appropriate financial assistance.
The documents conclude that on balance, the arrangement would be a win-win solution for both the UK and Thailand. There is no mention of what the asylum-seekers might think.