Bangkok. - Thai authorities should release 64 asylum seekers detained in a recent raid who are being held in immigration detention, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. The asylum seekers - including 7 children - are from Pakistan and Somalia, and possess “person of concern” documents issued by the United Nations refugee agency.
"People who are seeking refugee protection should not be detained," said Bill Frelick, refugee program director. "Once Thai authorities became aware the people apprehended were asylum seekers, they should have found alternatives to detention for them and their children."
On September 10, 2015, Thai officials and police raided an apartment complex in the Pracha Uthit area of Bangkok and arrested scores of Pakistani and Somali asylum seekers. Sixty-four were quickly tried for overstaying their visas, fined, and sent to the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok.
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has never enacted refugee law and procedures. Asylum seekers in Thailand thus seek recognition of their refugee status from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has a mandate to recognize refugees but limited capacity to process large numbers of refugee claims.
Nevertheless, customary international law bars Thailand from returning asylum seekers to a place where their lives or freedom is at risk. Given its own lack of asylum procedures, Thailand should respect UNHCR-issued persons-of-concern documents and refrain from detaining or otherwise punishing people who have pending claims for international protection. Alternatives to detention for asylum seekers could include meeting reporting requirements, and providing a community group guarantor.
Among those detained are 7 children, the youngest age 14. Detention of migrant children is particularly damaging to their health and well-being. Thailand’s obligations as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child prevent it from detaining children except as a measure of last resort for the shortest period of time. In its 2014 report "Two Years with No Moon," Human Rights Watch documented the dirty, cramped, and dangerous conditions faced by children in Thailand’s immigration detention centers, and found that such detention placed them at risk of permanent harm. The Thai government has continued to detain children in these centers.
"The Thai government needs to recognize that they are seriously harming children by sticking them in awful conditions in immigration detention centers," Frelick said. "These children should be released along with the family members who care for them."
Those detained in the September 10 raid have fled from countries with poor human rights records. In Pakistan, members of religious minorities may face discrimination, criminal charges of blasphemy, and other forms of persecution, including violent attacks. In Somalia, ongoing fighting in the south and central parts of the country has caused considerable harm to civilians, which may make Somali asylum seekers eligible for international protection under UNHCR’s Refugee Convention mandate or under its broader mandate to assist in providing protection in situations of forced displacement resulting from indiscriminate violence or public disorder.
The recent arrests in Bangkok appear part of a renewed campaign against irregular foreign migrants in urban areas. In March, authorities arrested and detained 200 refugees, again mostly Pakistani and Somali, in a series of raids authorized by a July 2014 order from the Thai military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order.
"Thailand should not be arresting asylum seekers with documents from the UN refugee office," Frelick said. "Punishing people who are fleeing ghastly conditions at home won’t keep them away, it will just add to their misery."