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Pandemic spreads in Thailand's immigration detention centers

On a single day, almost 300 detainees tested positive for Covid-19 at two holding centers in Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: March 23, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: April 12, 2021 11:20 AM GMT

Pandemic spreads in Thailand's immigration detention centers

Pandemic Covid-19 is reportedly spreading in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centers, where a facility designed to hold no more than 500 detainees often accommodates up to 1,200. This photo was released in January 2020 by a detainee. 

If you’re a Pakistani Christian facing a charge of blasphemy and a potential death sentence back home or else a Rohingya Muslim refugee made stateless and homeless by the Burmese army during months of ethnic cleansing, Thailand might seem like an ideal safe haven.

After all, the country promotes itself as “the Land of Smiles” with stunning scenery, a freewheeling atmosphere and comparatively high standards of living in Southeast Asia.

But there is a problem: Thai authorities do not exactly go out of their way to welcome refugees and asylum seekers. In fact, they often penalize them for no obvious reason.

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Thailand does not recognize the rights of asylum seekers such as Pakistani Christians and Rohingya Muslims to refugee status, which means that many of those who have sought temporary asylum in Thailand while hoping to relocate to a welcoming third country end up being incarcerated in the country’s notorious immigration detention centers, often indefinitely.

For a glimpse at how bad conditions are at these perennially overcrowded facilities filled well beyond intended capacity, consider this fact: on a single day, March 23, as many as 297 detainees tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 at just two holding centers in Bangkok.

That same day these infections among the detainees accounted for three-quarters of all positive tests in the entire country.

The reason for the high rate of infections among those unfortunates incarcerated at prison-like immigration detention centers is no mystery. Chronic overcrowding, coupled with a complete lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, means that diseases, especially airborne viruses, can spread with ease.

Just a few days ago 77 migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia were found to have been infected with Covid-19 in the two crowded cells where they were being held.

We can be assured that these infections among detainees at Thailand’s 22 immigration detention centers won’t be the last.

For years and years, rights advocates have been calling on Thai immigration authorities to improve conditions at immigration detention centers. Already in last May, when the enormity of the pandemic had already become apparent, a group of prominent rights groups and individual rights activists wrote a public letter to the Thai government with the aim of asking it to release detainees to ensure they would not be exposed to the coronavirus in their reduced conditions.

“[T]he detained population in the Immigration Detention Centers in Thailand includes many refugees and asylum seekers,” the signatories pointed out. “A number of them are survivors of religious persecution, including Hmong and Montagnard Christians from Vietnam, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan, and members of other religious groups that are severely persecuted in their home countries.”

Yet their plea has clearly fallen on deaf ears. A year on, thousands of asylum seekers remain detained in conditions as bad as ever. Over the years UCA News has helped document those conditions.

In February last year, the website obtained surreptitiously taken images from inside Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center, which showed dozens of detainees lying in a holding cell on the floor with no room to spare anywhere. 

“The IDC has been designed to hold no more than 500 detainees at most, yet it usually needs to accommodate up to 1,200,” UCA News explained in the accompanying article.

“Detainees’ only respite, such as it is, comes for a few hours a day when they are let out from their cramped cells to get some fresh air and much-needed exercise in an outdoor area. Here they have access to a canteen where those fortunate enough to have money sent from the outside can buy food to supplement meager prison rations,” the website added.

More than a year later, adding to the plight of detainees is the ever-present threat of Covid-19.

Now and again, Thai authorities, chivvied into action by bad publicity, promise to alleviate conditions at their immigration detention centers and may even enact a few small improvements as tokens of their sincerity. Once the public outrage in the wake of such publicity dies down, however, things return to business as usual.

We owe it to all the incarcerated asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, whether they are Christians or not, to keep shining a light on the abysmal state of affairs at Thailand’s immigration detention centers.

The latest revelations about the high rates of Covid-19 infections among detainees should force us all to redouble our efforts and continue demanding that Thai authorities release asylum seekers such as Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis forthwith while also creating far better conditions for illegal immigrants languishing in holding cells. 

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