Visiting Refugees in Bangkok

This guest post was written by Jodi Ettenberg who blogs at 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 crisscrossed 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 coloring 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 met 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 decide 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 9:30 am 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 center 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 11 am, 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. 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.