Zimbabwean family lingers in limbo at Thai airport for 2 months

They had applied to the UNHCR in the hope of obtaining refugee status, Thai immigration officials say

BANGKOK: A family of eight from Zimbabwe, including four children, have been stuck at a Bangkok airport for most of the past two months, unwilling to return home because of political uncertainty there and unable to secure visas to a third country.

Thai immigration officials said the family members had applied to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the hope of obtaining refugee status. They are being allowed to remain at the airport, rather than a detention centre, while their case is considered.

On Friday, the travellers were settled into a quiet corner of a large waiting area, where they occupied three sofas. Their luggage was piled on airport trolleys, and the children watched a video on a small portable device while the adults talked with reporters and airport personnel who stopped by.

The Zimbabwean travellers declined to give their names, or to explain how they ended up in their predicament. They also did not say what danger they would face if they were to return to Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe, who held power in Zimbabwe for 37 years, was ousted in late November. That was about a month after the family members were initially blocked from leaving Thailand.

Police Col. Cherngron Rimpadee, a spokesman for Thailand’s Immigration Bureau, said the family first tried to leave Thailand on October 23.

But they did not have a valid visa for Spain, their destination, so were not allowed to board their flight. And because they had overstayed their Thai visas by five months, they were fined and banned from re-entering the country for a year, meaning they could not leave Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.

In November, they succeeded in getting on a flight to Kiev, Ukraine, in the hope of continuing on to a third country. But on arrival in Kiev, they were denied permission to travel on. After they refused to fly to Zimbabwe, they were sent back to Bangkok.

Now, unable to enter Thailand, or to board a flight bound for a country of their own choosing, they spend their time near the G departure gates, waiting for permission to leave.

“We are stuck here,” said one of the Zimbabwean men, who did not want to be identified and would not comment further or offer details about their situation, seemingly ill-at-ease with the growing attention.

Their situation is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004 film, “The Terminal,” in which a traveller is left in limbo at Kennedy International Airport when his fictitious country’s government collapses and he is left without valid papers.

Their situation came to light Tuesday when an airport worker posted a photo of himself with one of the children on Facebook and mentioned that the family was living at the airport.

He also wrote that airport staff had been bringing the family food and gifts over the holidays as they remained stranded in the airport.

Cherngron said it was not unusual for passengers to get stuck at an airport for a period of time. “This happens at every airport in the world, not only in Thailand,” he said.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said she was aware of the case but could not provide details because of confidentiality requirements.

“We are currently exploring potential solutions,” she said.

Cherngron said that sending the family to a detention centre was still an option.

“If we feel that the UN process is taking too long, we might consider moving them to our centre, where we have a complete child-care centre,” he said. “We don’t have any deadline because we know this is a complicated issue that involves different countries who also have laws and procedures.”


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