A Thai immigration police officer looks at foreign detainees at an immigration detention center in Bangkok on Jan. 21, 2019, during a visit organized by authorities for journalists. (Photo: AFP)
Calls on Thai authorities to release hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from immigration facilities for the sake of their health have fallen on deaf ears, rights advocates say.
Last month Human Rights Watch issued a warning that many migrants had contracted Covid-19 at an overcrowded immigration detention center in a southern province.
More than 40 detainees, as well as several immigration officials, reportedly tested positive for Covid-19, including more than two dozen Rohingya women.
The stateless women, who are classified as refugees by international law, had been detained for entering or staying in Thailand illegally. The Buddhist-majority nation does not recognize the right of stateless Rohingya to political asylum in the country.
“Regardless of the numbers, there seems to be a problem with the conditions at the detention center and containment of the virus,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thai senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, explained in an article, referring to a detention center in the southern province of Songkhla.
The rights activist added that infections “spread like wildfire in the squalid lockup” owing to “overcrowded and unhygienic” conditions. As many detainees are squeezed into small cells with only basic amenities, social distancing and proper hygiene are both impossible for inmates. That could allow the virus to spread unchecked among inmates.
“The squalor and inadequate medical care in Thailand’s immigration detention centers are well documented. With hundreds of people crammed together, sleeping and eating in the same space and sharing bathroom facilities, social distancing and other measures to prevent infections are impossible,” Sunai wrote.
“In such conditions, Covid-19 can quickly spread, infecting detainees as well as staff who return home each day, bringing the disease into the surrounding community.”
Yet despite such warnings, Thai authorities continue to detain hundreds of asylum seekers and migrant workers at squalid and overcrowded detention centers.
Although the country has managed to contain the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus with slightly over 3,000 documented cases and fewer than 60 deaths over the past five months, rights advocates say the virus could persist in detention centers because of the unhygienic conditions.
If so, it would afflict people with little recourse to proper medical care, they say.
“To stop the spread of Covid-19 inside immigration detention centers, the Thai government should heed recommendations by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies by either releasing detained refugees and migrants or finding alternatives that allow for adequate space for social distancing and enabling migrants to secure food, hygiene products, and health care for at least the duration of the pandemic,” Sunai said.