Top: Inmates at Immigration Detention Center, or IDC, speak to reporters Monday.
BANGKOK — Children are no longer being held in that nation’s immigration detention facilities, immigration police said Wednesday in a move lauded by human rights advocates.
Instead of forcing minors to languish alongside other inmates inside Bangkok’s central Immigration Detention Center, or IDC, prison warden Thatchapong Sarawanangkool said children and their mothers will now live in shelters run by the social affairs ministry.
“At this moment we’re speaking, there is no children being held in any of immigration detention facilities,” Thatchapong said by phone.
Sunai Phasuk, a campaigner from Human Rights Watch, confirmed the news.
“It’s true. It is now a government policy,” said Sunai, whose organization has advocated for an end to such child detentions for several years. “The policy complies with international standards … It’s a welcome step.”
Thatchapong spoke two days after he and new immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn led reporters on a tour of the largest such prison tucked away near hips bars and eateries on Bangkok’s Soi Suan Phlu.
The facility has gained infamy for tales of filth, dire conditions, overcrowding and children as young as 3 locked up behind bars without any opportunity to attend school.
But that’s not the case anymore, according to Lt. Gen. Surachate, who goes by nickname Big Joke. After announcing last week that the jail was now free of children, Surachate invited reporters to see living conditions inside the prison for themselves.
“I won’t comment on what happened in the past, but from now on, the Immigration Bureau has to be transparent,” Lt. Gen. Surachate spoke last Wednesday at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. “Everything has to be brought out to the open.”
The prison visit on Monday also coincided with the Thai government’s signing of a pledge to end child detentions, though Sunai the activist said the change already happened months ago.
“As far as I know, it started late last year, when Big Joke was launching his ‘xray operations’, and some children were caught up in it,” Sunai said, referring to raids on foreigners living and working illegally in the kingdom. “Some organizations reminded the Immigration Bureau to implement the policy, and the bureau complied.”
Hell on Earth – No Longer?
The new measures are a big step since 2016, when the BBC published an expose of children living in the squalid and overcrowded jail with their mothers. Some of them suffered from diarrhea and nausea due to poor sanitation.
The prison used to hold up to 3,000 people in the past, but that number stood at 825 on Monday, Thatchapong and Surachate told reporters during the visit. Most are from the Middle East.
A famous group of Russian and Belarussian sex instructors had been locked up there for nearly a year until they pled guilty to the court on Jan. 16. They were deported the following day.
Those remaining are probably the most diverse group you can find in one place in Bangkok – Britons, Syrians, Pakistanis, Russians, Turks and even a Thai.
The tour included the prison yard, where newcomers were searched and fingerprinted, three shared cells – including one for female detainees – a telephone area, an exercise yard and a doctor’s office.
There is also an office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, inside the compound. Col. Thatchapong said UN officials work there on weekdays. In an emailed statement, the UN agency confirmed it has access to the detainees.
“UNHCR has a regular presence at the IDC to counsel persons of concern, as well as conduct necessary interviews,” the agency said. “Ultimately, access to this government facility is determined by the immigration authorities.”
Reporters were allowed to speak to the prisoners on the condition their identities and photos not be published.
Those inmates, dozens of men stripped to their waist, crowded around a metal barrier when they spotted the reporters. Most simply looked on with curiosity. Those who could speak English or had friends who speak the language laid out their grievances.
Among the complaints were poor food, rampant skin diseases, an unmoving bureaucracy (“It took ages to do anything” one inmate said angrily) and a lack of adequate drinking water.
“It’s hot in here. They should give us more water,” a man who said he was from Iraq complained.
Not everyone was gloomy. By an irony of fate, one man said he was happy to be here. He identified himself as a 20-year-old Thai man born in the United States. He had American citizenship but had lived in Thailand all his life with his Thai parents. Life took a turn when he was caught stealing a motorbike (“I was drunk”) and sentenced to a year in jail.
Because of his US nationality, immigration insisted on deporting him to the states after he served his time. The inmate said he will go to Utah, meet up with a friend and find work there.
“I’m pretty excited actually,” the man said, grinning. “I want to go to the US.”
None of those interviewed said they had been abused by the guards. Two British men, arrested for overstays, said they had access to the embassy staff and could make phone calls to their families.
To defuse any potential racial and religious conflicts, Col. Thatchapong said prison guards segregated the inmates into groups based on ethnicities and faiths.
He also maintained that the prisoners have convenient access to in-house physicians. Those feeling ill must inform the group leader, who will in turn inform the guards. Those with serious conditions would be sent to hospital.
Waiting For New Homes
Those held at the facility include not only convicted criminals and visa violators, but also asylum seekers.
Thailand is not a signatory to international conventions on refugees, and the law considers refugees and asylum seekers without valid visas as criminals, much to the chagrin of human rights activists. The Thai authorities also have a history of forcibly repatriating people back to homes they’ve fled despite fears for their safety.
Conversely, it’s allowed thousands of refugees from Myanmar to remain in border camps for decades.
Surachate, the new immigration chief, said there will be no forced repatriations under his watch – a stance he adopted after a young Saudi woman who renounced Islam was detained in Bangkok while trying to escape her family to Australia.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, was eventually allowed to enter Thailand under care of the UN Refugee Agency, which granted her refugee status and found her a home in Canada.
“We will not send anyone to their death,” Surachate repeated his stance from earlier this month to reporters last week.
He said there are about 200 Pakistani inmates who refuse to go home because of sectarian violence, so immigration lacks any authority to deport them.
Thatchapong the warden said it’s up to the UN Refugee Agency to find countries that will accept them.
Years-long delays without any news are a common complaint of the thousands of refugees living in semi-freedom in Bangkok. Some of those held at the detention center said they have waited years for the UNHCR to resettle them.
“It’s very slow,” said a Palestinian man who fled Syria six years ago. He said he didn’t want to be drafted into the army, so he just ran. “Anywhere is better than home.”
An man holding a refugee ID card identifying him as from Iraq said he has been waiting to be resettled for over a year. Another prisoner said he knew someone in his cell that has spent the last decade waiting for a new home, to no avail.
In its statement, the UNHCR said resettlement can be extremely difficult.
“Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees are resettled each year and the number of places available continues to decline,” the agency said. “Regardless of nationality or place of origin, UNHCR refers only the most vulnerable refugees for consideration by resettlement countries.”
The statement added, “Ultimately it is up to these countries to decide whether or not to accept the refugees, based on their law, criteria and national policies.”