Persecuted Minorities Seeking Asylum In Thailand Face Crackdown

Bangkok and other urban areas in Thailand are home to some 8,000 refugees who have fled religious persecution in their home countries. But since the deadly shrine bombing in August, the government has been harassing and arresting illegal immigrants.

Thai police and Pakistani refugees in Bangkok
Thai police and Pakistani refugees in Bangkok
Kannikar Petchkaew

BANGKOK â€" Almost 8,000 asylum seekers, smuggled from countries such as Syria, Somalia and Pakistan, live in Bangkok and other urban centers in Thailand, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The kingdom has notably become a major destination for Christians leaving Pakistan to escape religious persecution in their homeland.

Unrecognized and stuck in limbo, asylum seekers are subject to harassment and arrests. But since August's Erawan Shrine bombing, authorities have intensified their crackdown on illegal immigrants, meaning the refugees are living in even more uncertainty and fear. Many Pakistanis flee their country looking for a better life, says 35-year-old asylum seeker Nadeem* â€" though they don't always find it.

For the past three years, Nadeem has spent his days in Bangkok, living in despair. "We are waiting for the UNHCR, and it is taking a very long time,” he says. "Life is not easy here, in many ways. We don't have money, food or a job."

The process of seeking asylum through the UNHCR can take years. And because Thailand isn't a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the immigrants aren't officially recognized.

Nadeem says he fled Pakistan after his house was burned and his family was threatened because he worked for a Christian organization. Now he is in Thailand with his family, but he has spent most of his time hiding in an apartment in the outskirts of Bangkok. He says he wouldn't advise other Pakistanis come here.

Illegal and vulnerable, asylum seekers are subject to harassment or even arrested, Nadeem says. "I know we have many problems back home, but Thailand is not a place for us," he says. "Pakistanis should find another country."

Twice victimized

Prakong Pongtech is a Thai volunteer who works with asylum seekers in the capital. She says that since the bombing of the shrine, which killed 20 people, the Thai authorities have been targeting illegal migrants like Nadeem and his family. "Three hundred people were arrested in a single day," she explains. "Others just fled and went into hiding, and they are extremely scared, even now."

She remembers the day when the Thai police raided Nadeem's apartment building, where almost 2,000 Pakistani asylum seekers were living. In the aftermath of the bombing, police conducted raids across the city, looking for foreigners believed to be behind the incident.

In Nadeem's building, hundreds were arrested and 70 are still in prison. On that day, says Prakong, many others escaped to a nearby house to hide out: "They fled and camped out in one small house for a week until we assured them that things were better and that they could go back to their rooms," she says.

When the military junta came into power last year, officials became more aggressive toward the illegal migrant community. Things worsened still after the Erawan bombing.

Natika, the owner the apartment building that was raided, inspects the empty rooms. "They've left," she says of one family. "They too have left. Same thing for them."

About 1,000 Pakistani asylum seekers have stayed in the building, but they are afraid to go out, fearing for their safety. Some even lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.

Ahmed, who is just 8, knows the situation all too well. He lives with his five siblings, parents and grandparents in a dingy apartment in Bangkok's outskirts. He says the apartment is the same size as their kitchen back home, in Pakistan. The family fled the country two years ago, and Ahmed hasn't been back to school since. He wants to return, but his parents won't allow it. They fear he might get arrested.

They won't even let him go outside to play: Only the bigger kids are allowed on the roof of the building, they say, and Ahmed is too small to run away from the police if they come.

The little boy says he can't remember much of Pakistan anymore, though he still recalls a song he learned there. As he passes the days in hiding, he has sung it so many times he'll probably never forget it.

*All names in this story have been changed to protect identities.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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