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Visiting Refugees in Bangkok

This guest post was written by Jodi Ettenberg who blogs at LegalNomads.com. Jodi is one of the most accomplished travelers I’ve met in the last three years. She left her job as an attorney in New York City to pursue her dream of traveling. I met Jodi in Bangkok in 2010 and visited the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok with her several times.


I have been in Bangkok for several months now, and like many other transplants, I only planned on staying a week, maybe two. Though I had ample opportunity to visit Thailand’s capital as I criss-crossed Southeast Asia, I never truly felt at home here and, in looking for a place to plant myself for a few months, I expected to end up in Chiang Mai or Kuala Lumpur. However, after a glorious six weeks in Burma, I returned to Bangkok in time to meet with a large group of fellow Tweeters, most of whom were either travelers in transit or ex-pats who had made Bangkok their home. They were a great group of energetic, fascinating people, and their creativity and enthusiasm made me want to make Bangkok my temporary home too. Among them was Dwight Turner, behind the incredible organization In Search of Sanuk, which seeks to alleviate urban poverty here in Bangkok.

Visiting Refugees in Immigration Detention Center

Jodi and crew bringing supplies to the detainees

Jodi and crew bringing supplies to the detainees

Sanuk is the Thai word for happiness or something worthwhile to do, and Dwight’s aim for his Immigration Detention Center (IDC) programme is to bring some of that happiness to the many refugees detained within Bangkok’s gloomy IDC. In bringing food, specific supplies (baby diapers for those refugees with young children, soap or colouring books for the kids) and drinking water, he certainly helps the detainees in a myriad of ways. However, by bringing a group of volunteers, he manages to magnify that effect. Here’s why: the detainees are kept in cells ranging from 100-300 people, separated by gender and often separated within families as well. Each IDC visitor ‘takes’ a specific detainee out for the visiting hour, and if you have enough in your volunteer group, you can make sure a whole family gets out together. Despite being happy to see you and receive visitors, the detainees are also overjoyed to spend time with their families – something that only happens once a month for those inside IDC. And for those families who have been there for many months (I’ve met several who were there for years so far), a chance to see their family members is something extraordinary to look forward to. When someone has a birthday, the volunteers bring donuts and a card signed by all of us and ‘take out’ the whole family for the visiting hour. It is both heartbreaking and encouraging to see them celebrate together.

Understandably, the IDC visits are depressing, even when bolstered by a family’s happy reunion. Conditions are squalid, and many of the refugees linger in there for years – I’ve meet several women who even gave birth in IDC, as they were arrested when pregnant.

Why Are These Refugees in IDC?

Detainees have so much time on their hands, some make toys like this out of plastic bags

Detainees have so much time on their hands, some make toys like this out of plastic bags

Most of the refugees in IDC entered Thailand like the rest of us – they flew in, got a 30 day entry stamp and travelled into the city. However, many of them fear persecution in their home country, and instead made lives for themselves here, usually with their families. Well over the 30 day visa, they are susceptible to arrest if discovered by the police, or if the police decides to raid an area of town. Once arrested, their options are to petition the UN for formal United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) status, or to be deported at their expense to their home country. Since most fled from their homes to begin with, they remain in IDC hopeful to get official status (this requires interviews and a medical). And even if they get the UN to recognize their case, they still need to wait until a country accepts them for resettlement. On average, the detainees are in IDC for 2 years.

What Can You Do to Help?

1) Visit IDC

If you are coming through Bangkok and want to visit IDC yourself, please sign up at VolunteerSpot and Becky will contact you to coordinate. Becky goes to IDC at least twice a week (usually on Mondays and Wednesdays), and is always looking for new volunteers.

Jodi and Becky at the IDC

Jodi and Becky at the IDC

When visiting IDC, I usually follow the same routine. I meet Becky around 9:30am and she tells me which detainee hasn’t been visited recently, or needs to be taken out in order to be with the rest of his/her family during visiting hour. I then register with the warden of the detention centre by filling out a form specifying which detainee I came to visit (and providing his IDC identification number) and giving photocopies of my passport ID page and Thailand visa page. I then go and pick up some food and water for the detainees (I usually opt for a Nepali chicken rice dish from a nearby street vendor and include milk for the kids) and wait for visiting hour to start. At 11am, a bell sounds and all the visitors pour into IDC’s main entrance. In exchange for handing over my passport, I receive a locker for all my belongings (I mean all – they once sent me back because I forgot to take out my SkyTrain card from my pocket). Following a very thorough pat-down, I enter into the main visiting area: two long iron fences separated by a small walkway patrolled by the guards. The detainees file in and we each hold onto our respective fences, yelling over the din of the crowd. Though I do not get one-on-one time with any of the detainees, I do get to see them spend close time with their families, which is extremely worthwhile. A buzzer sounds at the end of the visit and I take my belongings out of the locker, hand back the key, receive my passport and walk out into the hot Bangkok sun.

2) Make a Donation to In Search of Sanuk

Alternatively, you can make a monetary donation. In Search of Sanuk is an organization under the umbrella of Mark Gold’s 100 Friends Project, a registered 501(c)3 tax-deductible charity organization in the United States. Click here to donate to In Search of Sanuk or set up a recurring contribution. Be sure to mark ‘Sanuk’ in one of the note donation fields so the funds can be allocated toward ISOS’s projects, including building new parks for Bangkok’s slums, bringing food or supplies to IDC refugees or paying rent for other refugees that are housed in Bangkok so that their families can use their little funds to educate and clothe their children instead of paying for rent.

Visiting the IDC is a Rewarding, Important Experience

Thailand has many exciting things to do and beautiful sights to see, but it is also important to discover what lies underneath the surface of the country. I’ve gone to IDC many times during my 3-month stay in Bangkok, and it has been infinitely rewarding to do so. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, or contact me through my blog for more information.

  • 5 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Yuriy says:

    Hello! Perhaps you can help me a little advice. My girlfriend awaiting deportation in the IDC, soon I need to go take her personal belongings. I live in Pattaya and not exactly know where is it. In addition, I hope you will be able to tell about how i can give her personal belongings (luggage, which remained in Pattaya after detention, credit cards, etc.). In what time I need come and and the further procedure. Regards, Yuri.

  2. Good work Jodi! My partner worked with Burmese refugees in Australia who’d come via Thailand. I hope this post inspires more people to incorporate this kind of thing into their travels.

  3. Dwight ???? says:

    Thanks Gary and Jodi both for taking the time to not only come out while you were in Bangkok, but to care enough to want to keep getting others involved. With everyone giving what they can, whether spreading the word or sending donations, we can provide some relief in some very desperate situations. Thanks

  4. Thanks for such a moving post. I always enjoy reading how people intertwine their travel with making a difference, no matter the size.

    Everyone should set aside a vacation to give back to the earth, a community or to those less fortunate.

  5. Audrey says:

    Just the other day, we met a group of Butanese refugees who arrived in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area (odd place for refugees!) after 19 years in limbo in Nepal and India. I can’t even imagine what that must be like to wonder whether a family will get deported back to the country they fled or receive UN refugee status and have to start over.

    Thanks for sharing your experience volunteering with IDC. Having people like you help out and just be there to talk to as regular human beings really does make a difference.

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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