By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A court in northern Thailand has invoked a special measure to protect a 16-year-old Somali refugee, in a "milestone" ruling for a country where refugees, including children, face constant risk of detention and prosecution.
The boy, smuggled from war-torn Somalia three years ago, has become a high school football star in Thailand. But on Feb. 14, upon landing at the airport in the northern city of Chiang Rai for a tournament, he was detained for not having a passport.
Officially recognized by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR as a refugee, he was held for a month and released in March, but the public prosecutor pursued the case, charging the boy with illegal entry. On Wednesday, the court ruled to protect the boy.
In its decision, the Chiang Rai Juvenile and Family Court said the boy was young and "had not seriously harmed society", according to a statement from the Coalition for the Rights of Refugee and Stateless Persons (CRSP).
It said he has been recognized by UNHCR as a refugee and is being processed for resettlement in another country.
"Due to these reasons, the court deems it inappropriate to render a judgment," it said, placing the boy on a "restorative justice plan" under which he must report every three months to a juvenile court in Bangkok.
The boy's lawyer welcomed the decision and praised police for recognizing the boy as a minor and channeling his case through the juvenile system.
"This is a milestone case," his lawyer Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.
"This is the first time that a child (refugee) is protected under the juvenile court system. Before the child would be arrested as a group with adults, police would charge the adults, and the child is just stuck within that group."
He must return to the Chiang Rai court in a year to show he has completed the instructions, and the court will settle the case, Kohnwilai said.
There are an estimated 8,000 urban refugees in Thailand, mostly in Bangkok. Of that number, about 2,000 are officially recognized by UNHCR as refugees.
Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, and does not recognize refugees, so asylum seekers are not distinguished from migrants.
As such, whether or not they have UNHCR papers, refugees and asylum seekers regularly risk arrest, detention and prosecution.
The boy, whose parents had disappeared in conflict-torn Somalia, was 13 when his grandmother paid a smuggler to bring him to Thailand via Malaysia to escape an armed group that wanted to recruit him as a child soldier, Kohnwilai said.
Having had his documents confiscated by smugglers, the boy was registered as a refugee with UNHCR, and enrolled in school, where he became a football "superstar", she said.
The CRSP said upon hearing the court decision, the boy was "overwhelmed with joy".
"He had never thought that he would be able to have freedom, to live his life normally, to get back to school, to meet friends, and to participate in school activities again," the CRSP statement said.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)