Nearly all North Korean refugees caught in Thailand are charged with illegal entry and end up spending a token 10 days in prison as they are unable to pay the maximum 2,000 baht fine. They are then put in line for deportation to "a third country" -- nearly always South Korea -- although the process can drag out for months.
Last month, 400 North Koreans went on hunger strike in Bangkok's main immigration detention center to protest at being kept for months in overcrowded, sweaty cells while Seoul weighed their claims for asylum. Eventually, Seoul agreed to take 20 a month, human rights workers said, although there were also suggestions the real total could be higher.
But with at least 60 new refugees arriving every month, more backlogs and more hunger strikes look inevitable.
Immigration officials on the border say they are now under unofficial orders to stretch out the time it takes for a refugee to get to Bangkok, from the normal 30 days to 45.
Meanwhile, the various ministries and agencies in Bangkok that should be dealing with the issue -- the immigration police, National Security Council and Foreign Ministry, among others -- appear to be busy passing the buck. Nearly 1,000 km (600 miles) away on the border, it is easy to see Bangkok as too mixed up in its own domestic politics to care, especially since September's military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.