In July, I travelled to Bangkok to visit Alex, the first time we would meet since his release from immigration detention. I was a little anxious. What if we had nothing in common? What if we did not get along? These thoughts were dispelled when I spotted Alex grinning and waving at the Skytrain station exit. He looked healthy, tall and well built. His hair was styled with bleached highlights and he was dressed in sports clothes, all bright white and neat.
It was mid-morning but already humid, so we bought some young coconuts to drink from a local street vendor before making our way across the highway to his apartment, a modest one bedroom studio—palatial in comparison to the overcrowded cells he had inhabited over the last four years. As we walked and talked, Alex mentioned he was looking for some help with a photoblogging project, similar to ‘Humans of New York’ but concerned with the refugees of Bangkok. Being a compulsive photographer, I was relieved to have a practical, collaborative task to focus on for the few days we would spend together. We decided to immediately visit some of Alex’s friends living in an apartment block inhabited almost exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers. The following day we would venture further into the outskirts of Bangkok’s urban sprawl, to spend some time with another group of refugees who had been detained with Alex in Kanchanaburi.
In the past, I have discussed Alex as a media figure, so I was not surprised to find him enthusiastic behind the lens. Reviewing these images now, I wonder if they are political. Certainly they document and make visible people living in the margins, but will they improve the material conditions of those they depict? Could these portraits assist their subjects to be resettled? Are pictures able to make accessible the services these people need to survive in Bangkok?
Alex told me about a ‘Refugee Bazaar’, an annual event organised by some local non-government organisations (NGOs) at a cafe in central Bangkok. Here refugees are encouraged to sell handicrafts, artworks and food, express themselves and their culture without fear and effectively ‘be themselves for a day.’ Patrons buy coupons which they exchange for what is on offer and which refugees are then able to exchange for cash. It is one of the few opportunities that refugees in Bangkok have to make some money.
This year’s bazaar occurred soon after Alex was released on bail from immigration detention, and he was curious to attend. After buying coupons at the entrance, he browsed the market, received a henna tattoo, grazed snacks and admired the handicrafts. When he went outside for a cigarette, Alex fell into a conversation with some of the gathered NGOs and expats who assumed he was one of their own. He took the opportunity to survey their thoughts about the prospects of resettlement for a single Tamil man who, like himself, was living as an urban refugee awaiting the outcome of his applications. The general perception was that since the war in Sri Lanka had ended in 2009, and especially since President Rajapaksa had been ousted in the election earlier this year, the country would be safe for returnees. Those Tamils remaining in Bangkok were considered the ‘last batch’ and would also be expected to leave, despite ongoing accounts of torture and the ‘dirty war’ being waged against those critical of the Sri Lankan state. One NGO who headed up a United Nations humanitarian project offered that the remaining Tamils in Thailand would be best-served finding ‘other means’ to leave the country and to make their claims elsewhere. It seems there was nothing the UNHCR in Bangkok could do for them. To reiterate, Alex was advised by the very people administering the resettlement process that he would be better off taking the ‘illegal route’ rather than ‘joining the queue’—either way was a gamble.
As he described to me these conversations and his ‘double act’, I conjured an impression of Alex as a subaltern shapeshifter or diplomat. One able to slip out from the urban margins, and circulate amongst the mobile communicative classes. Disarmed by his social ease, these seasoned NGOs talked frankly and honestly about the failures of a system they help facilitate. They were surprised and unsettled when Alex later revealed that he was not as they had assumed, ‘one of them’.
Recently, I met one of these very NGOs in Sydney. Speaking on a panel discussion open to the public, he emphasised that those providing services for refugees in Thailand often operate ‘under the radar.’ Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 UN refugee convention and makes no concessions for refugees and asylum seekers who, like all other migrants and tourists without the proper visas, are considered ‘illegal aliens.’ Whilst Alex and his community are tolerated by the grace of the Thai government, they have no assurance that this hospitality will not be suddenly withdrawn.
Alex understands Thailand wants to clear out its overcrowded immigration detention centres, yet questions how it expects refugees to survive without resources or support. Perhaps this is exactly the point? Once outside, he claims refugees no longer receive the meagre allowance provided in detention and are also refused legal rights to work. Forced to find ways to cover their basic living expenses, urban refugees become dependent on irregular charity, susceptible to exploitation in the unregulated labour market and vulnerable to harassment and extortion by authorities. The current global refugee crisis attests that there are many more stateless people than places being offered to resettle them, so what are the possible consequences? Will urban refugees be pushed back into immigration detention? If so, what would happen to them next? Alex recalled how a plain speaking UN official explained to him that if his resettlement was not forthcoming, then he might have his refugee status revoked!
Although it is often portrayed otherwise, Bangkok is not by any means a cheap city and there are many living well beneath the standards of the city’s global elite. With Alex, I was made to feel welcome amongst his people and I am grateful for the insights I gained into their everyday lives. As we discussed how they were self-organising in the face of adversity, Alex assured me they were not begging for handouts; they would rather be able to help themselves.