Volunteer experiences in Bangkok: Asylum Access
Imagine how you would feel if you were forced to flee from your home to a new country where you didn’t speak the language, understand the culture or know what your rights were.
What if you had no right to work, no right to send your children to school, lived in constant fear of arrest and were faced with crippling poverty?
This is reality for 16 million people worldwide and more than 2,000 (UNCHR Report, December 2010) urban refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand. It's something most who hail from the developed world may never have to face; but if the shoe was on the other foot, would you know who to turn to, or where to go for help?
Asylum Access is a human rights advocacy group based in the United States that is dedicated to providing legal advice and representation for asylum seekers in South America, Africa and Asia.
The Bangkok office of Asylum Access faces many unique challenges since Thailand has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not officially recognize or protect those with UN refugee status within their borders.
Refugees of all ages (including children) who flee their country of origin and seek sanctuary in Thailand face the real risk of detention in unhygienic and overcrowded Thai prisons where they often languish for years before they are forcibly deported.
'Fighting for protection and human rights is about preserving human dignity'
When you become a volunteer with Asylum Access, you work directly with these people and have the opportunity to affect the lives of this vulnerable population in a very powerful way. Asylum Access Thailand is dependent upon the efforts of volunteers to meet staffing needs as the office is limited to only two to three full paid staff members.
There are two main volunteer opportunities available at Asylum Access. The first is flexible, short-term volunteer experiences that are individually negotiated. This is usually reserved for volunteers who currently live in Thailand and can perhaps commit to working a few days a week or for a few months out of the year.
The second volunteer opportunity is an international volunteer who commits to working full time for a minimum of six months. Previous international volunteers and interns come from countries such as Australia, France, the UK, the United States and Singapore, to name just a few.
All volunteers are given intensive training before their assignments and can expect to actively participate in legal aide work, community education workshops, strategic litigation and international policy and advocacy activities.
Michael Timmins, who is the legal service manager, explains the importance of the work being done at Access Asylum.
“Refugees are survivors and fighters," he says. "They may be vulnerable while in transit, but they are not weak, they are very resourceful people. Fighting for protection and human rights is about preserving human dignity, and that is what we try to do at Asylum Access.”
Thai Jantana Sakulborirak started her career with Access Asylum in 2009 as a volunteer and recently accepted a full time position as the Legal and Policy Advocate. She credits the organization with allowing her to fulfill a lifelong desire to help people who are truly in need.
Darshini Yoganathorn is another volunteer and a recent college graduate from Singapore.
“Being a volunteer has been a great experience. I have been given the opportunity to learn about international law and experience the practical application of theories learned in the classroom," she says. "For me, the best part of being a volunteer is the gratification that comes from helping people obtain real and substantial protection."
Darshini says she plans to parlay the lessons learned from her volunteer experience with Asylum Access into a career as an attorney and will apply to law school when she returns to Singapore.
For more information on the organization and full details on how to volunteer, make a donation or otherwise get involved, visit their website at asylumaccess.org.
56/9 Soi Intamara 35, Suthisan Rd. Dindaeng, Bangkok, Thailand; tel. +66 02 691 9231, +66 02 691 9231; asylumaccess.org
Growing up in a military family, Melissa has lived all over the United States; most notably Hawaii, California and Florida. She’s traveled all over the world and has been based in Bangkok, Thailand since 2004 as a freelance writer. She works as a contributing food writer for Restaurants of Bangkok, Bangkok Best Dining & Entertainment Guide, and PekoPiko.com. She also continues to freelance for several other international magazines and publications.
Melissa submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.