Women hide their faces as children sleep after being detained at a rubber plantation in Hat Yai district of Songkhla province southern Thailand earlier this year. Pic: AP.

Thousands of children across Southeast Asia have fled war, poverty and other dangers, hoping to find brighter prospects in neighbouring Thailand. But a new report from non-government organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the famed tourist hub is no safe haven for those marginalised youth.

“Migrant children detained in Thailand are suffering needlessly in filthy, overcrowded cells,” Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at HRW and author of the report, stated in a press release that accompanied the report, which were both released this morning. Farmer added: “Detention lockup is no place for migrant children.”

HRW’s report featured interviews with 41 migrant children and 64 adults from Burma (also known as Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and other nearby locales who arrived in Thailand as refugees or migrant workers, before being held by immigration officials. One of the interviewees was Cindy Y., a migrant child detained at the age of nine and released three years later. She said: “The worst part was that you were trapped and stuck. I would look outside and see people walking around the neighborhood, and I would hope that would be me.”

Farmer also interviewed Yanaal L. who has been detained, along with his relatives, in Bangkok’s immigration detention center since April. He was quoted as saying: “My [five-year-old] nephew asked, ‘How long will I stay?… Will I live the rest of my life here?’ I didn’t know what to say.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are 375,000 migrant children in Thailand. HRW’s report found that approximately 100 children are annually detained on a long-term basis of at least one month, while 4,000 more are held for days or weeks at a time. The report also said that migrant children are malnourished and deprived of opportunities to exercise in the Thai immigration detention centers, before adding that: “parents… pay exorbitant prices for supplemental food smuggled from the outside to try to provide for their children’s nutritional needs.”

Meanwhile, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied HRW’s allegations in a seven-page public response, adding that detainees can apply for bail releases. It also said that many migrant mothers and children are offered the opportunity to stay in government shelters, but some decline in order to remain with relatives held in the detention centers.

“Detention of some small number of migrant children in Thailand is not a result of the government’s policies but rather the preference of the migrant parents themselves,” the Foreign Affairs ministry stated. “The Thai government is trying its best to address and accommodate the needs of migrant children bearing in mind the humanitarian consideration and fundamental human rights.”

A 2011 IOM report stated that the Thai government does have some legitimate concerns about the detainees, adding: “Although it is difficult to make comparisons between migrants’ and non-migrants’ health, policymakers must take into account that migrants do have health problems that need to be considered in order to effectively control diseases and to provide services for those in need… some of these diseases can impose real health concerns for Thais.”

The IOM also stated that shifts in immigration policy would not only benefit the migrants, but also the Thais, adding: “Child migrants have a range of particular health problems… it is important to mention that many child migrants are unlikely to complete their child vaccinations, posing a threat to the health of Thai children. To tackle this problem, policymakers should consider allowing registered migrants to enrol their children in the health scheme.”

HRW’s report conceded that Thailand’s migration issue is complex, and that the nation is entitled to uphold its borders. But the NGO added that Thailand, “…should do so in a way that upholds basic human rights, including the right to freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to family unity, and international minimum standards for conditions of detention.”