Yesterday, I had an experience that put my current frustration with waiting (for employment, for documents, for life to start…) into perspective. It occurred, randomly enough, on a trip to prison. A few members of my church travel each week to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), located on the other side of Bangkok. The IDC is essentially a holding place for people who have been caught either within Thailand or at the Thai border without proper documentation. Some of the prisoners knew what they were risking when they illegally entered Thailand, while others were ignorant of regulations, and totally desperate – refugees seeking protection. Either way, all the inmates were looking for economic opportunities that their own countries could not offer them – the prison is full of Cambodians, Vietnamese, and citizens from all over Africa. They are all stuck in a sort of limbo, a liminal space: many are in the process of applying for refugee status to western countries,* a long and painful process in which they are often rejected multiple times before they experience success. In the meantime, they sit in terribly crowded dorms, and wait, sometimes for years.
Our group visited 6 people in total – 1 from Cameroon, 1 from Sierra Leone, 1 from Ethiopia, and 3 from Vietnam (one couple, and one single man). The woman from Cameroon and the man from Sierra Leone spoke perfect English, the three Vietnamese spoke no English, but could speak a little Thai, and the girl from Ethiopia spoke neither language. Seeing each of their reactions to their confinement made me feel a roller coaster of emotions. Three cases stand out in particular.
1) The woman from Cameroon was preaching up a storm. She has used her confinement as an opportunity to start bible studies in her dorm, and she let us know exactly what God has been saying to her recently. Her joy and animation were contagious. Just watching her talk made me laugh.
2) The girl from Ethiopia stared at us through the double chain-link fence that separated the prisoners and the visitors. She speaks only Amharic, and so the other Ethiopian in her dorm is the only person she can communicate with. She looked so young and so sad. I was told that she was apprehended at the airport with no documents – it makes me wonder whether she had any clue what she was getting into.
3) The Vietnamese couple stood quietly, holding hands. The dorms are gender-segregated, and they only get to see each other when someone comes to visit them and they are allowed in the common area. It made me realize how much I take Todd for granted.
Visiting hour was soon over, and the prisoners were escorted back to their dorms, to continue waiting.
I’m not in any way arguing that Thailand shouldn’t control its borders, or that it should turn a blind eye to illegal aliens. I think that conditions at the prison could and should be improved, but as far as I can tell, the prisoners are not abused. The prison was a potent reminder, though, that the world is not fair, and that we are not all offered the same opportunities, economic or otherwise. On a personal level, the visit was a kick in the pants. While I still find the long wait for the finalization of my documents and work permits to be deeply frustrating, seeing so many people waiting for years to be accepted as refugees in any country willing to take them puts my own trials in perspective.
* Thailand does not offer refugee protection under the UN convention