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Migrant workers contract Covid-19 at Thai detention center

Concerns grow over overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at immigration facilities

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: May 05, 2020 06:51 AM GMT
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Migrant workers contract Covid-19 at Thai detention center

Gross overcrowding at Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center where a facility designed to hold no more than 500 detainees often accommodates up to 1,200. This photo was released in January by a detainee. 

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Fears are growing that immigration detention centers around Thailand may become hotbeds of Covid-19 as another 18 foreign detainees were found to have the novel coronavirus on May 4.

The foreigners who tested positive are being held at a facility for illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the southern province of Songkhla on the Malaysian border.

Seventeen of the newly infected inmates were women from neighboring Myanmar who had come to Thailand as migrant workers.

Last week 42 illegal migrant workers and two immigration officers tested positive previously for the coronavirus at the same facility in Songkhla.

Overcrowding and unhygienic conditions have long been routine at Thailand’s immigration detention centers. Many inmates are refugees, including Pakistani Christians, whose request for the right to asylum is not recognized by Thailand’s government.

In recent years international rights groups such as Amnesty International have repeatedly urged the Thai government to respect the rights of asylum seekers and to ease the heavy-handed treatment of refugees.

Asylum seekers are routinely treated as common criminals for staying illegally in the country. They are incarcerated, often indefinitely, at cramped immigration detention centers where diseases are rampant.

“We call on the government of Thailand to enact and implement laws and policies to ensure full rights and protections for refugees in line with international human rights law, including protection from forced return and arbitrary arrest and detention,” Amnesty International said in a recent statement.

Last week immigration authorities in Songkhla expressed concerns that the 26 Rohingya women who were being held as illegal immigrants at the same facility in the province may contract Covid-19.

The Rohingya are a stateless, predominantly Muslim ethnic group from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, hundreds of thousands of whom have been expelled from the country by the army.

The Thai government does not grant refugee status to stateless Rohingya.

The second-floor cell where the Rohingya women were being held at the immigration detention center “is too small to implement social distancing guidelines,” warned Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at the Migrant Working Group, a network of charities promoting migrant rights.

In response to such concerns, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul asked for the women to be moved to another facility in a neighboring province.

A field hospital has been set up in Songkhla to treat detainees who have contracted the virus.

Three dozen of these detainees, most of whom came from Myanmar, were being treated late last week at the makeshift hospital. Six other inmates, including a pregnant migrant worker, were receiving treatment at a local hospital.

Six immigration officers also tested positive for the virus. As a result, 144 officers were quarantined late last week in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the area.

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