FOR years, a 16 year-old Rohingya girl lingered in a tightly crammed cell with dozens of others in what human rights groups call “inhumane” conditions. Her situation seemed hopeless.
She didn’t know how, or when she would leave, or what her options were. Her only choice was to wait. Her name was Zainab Bi Bi—and she didn’t have long to live. Over the last three years all she knew was the inside of that derelict place. Left without proper medical care, or even basic health and hygiene needs, she waited indefinitely for something to change.
Change came – but not in the form of medical attention or humane care; it came in the shape of internal bleeding. On Nov 2, the young girl died a few days after collapsing in one of Thailand’s notorious southern Immigration Detention Centres (IDCs) from internal bleeding in her brain.
She ended up in Sadao IDC after she was trafficked from Burma (Myanmar) in 2014. Her desperate escape from persecution didn’t matter to Thai authorities, as they promptly detained her, sending her off with many others to the closest immigration detention centre.
Her only crime – seeking refuge from persecution back home, a place where very real atrocities are occurring on a daily basis.
Thailand’s mistreatment of refugees is well established, widely criticised, and heavily documented. Though it seems that conditions inside of Thailand’s immigration detention centres could be worse than expected.
Multiple human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, and Amnesty International all claim that conditions inside these IDCs are so inhospitable that they breach international law, and additionally violate the human rights of those unfortunate enough to live inside them.
Amnesty International says that Thailand, as a neighbouring country to Myanmar, should be active in assisting refugees, instead of punishing them further.
“It is shocking that Myanmar’s neighbours continue to lock up individuals seeking safety and protections after fleeing from these grave human rights violations,” said James Gomez, Regional Director of Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia & Pacific Regional Office.
“The death of this girl is another tragedy that underlines the failures of not only Myanmar, but also of its neighbours.”
Gomez continued to describe how severely uninhabitable these centres are, and how it appears Thai authorities are unwilling, at least for now, to improve the conditions inside them to meet international legal standards.
The hazards dwelling inside Thailand’s’ IDCs are not limited to sanitary concerns. Physical violence, malnutrition and overpopulation are so severe that detainees are forced to sleep in shifts, as there is simply not enough space for detainees to lie down at the same time.
Even those with UNHCR cards are not exempt from detainment in Thailand, Gomez told Asian Correspondent. He said more than 150 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers have also been held under these circumstances for years.
A recent report from Amnesty International cites that conditions inside Thailand’s IDCs are “appalling” and “worse than prison.” The report cites an account from a young man fleeing religious persecution, a Pakistani Christian; who went on to describe the struggle he faced inside Bangkok’s Suan Phlu IDC.
“They locked us in the cells like animals. It was around 250 of us in one cell. There were so many health issues. We did not have water. We did not consider that we had committed any sin. We just came to seek justice and seek protection.”
The Pakistani man continued to recount the pain of sleeping in such a severely tight space.
“This was our sin. It was so hard to even sit on the floor. Laying down and sleeping was impossible. I only had this much space [shows approximately 24 inches]. If anyone put up their legs – if you turn or move your legs – you will lose your space.”
UNHCR and other NGOs are also deeply concerned with Thai authorities’ audacity in arresting children. Over the past three weeks, a series of raids led to the arrests of many children, with some of the detained minors still sitting in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu, IDC, as I write this.
Thailand’s IDCs are not only hotbeds for disease and physical health concerns; they also breed mental health problems that can last a lifetime.
Studies indicate that psychological harm is linked to detention, specifically for children. Detaining children can have detrimental, and long-term effects on a child’s mental health. Because their brains are still in the process of development, they are more prone to suffer mental health problems when exposed to such debilitating conditions inside Thailand’s IDCs. Evidence shows correlations between anxiety, depression, and self- harm after experiencing time in detention centres.
Refugees and asylum seekers already face a tremendous amount of affliction through the process of escaping threats in their home countries. Yet in Thailand, they still suffer through a set of irrational restrictions – unable to acquire formal legal status under Thai law.
“We are deeply concerned by the Thai government’s choice, on a number of occasions, to send refugees and other foreigners back to countries where they are vulnerable to torture, persecution, and other human rights violations,” Gomez said.
“Although these types of cases have only affected a minority of the refugee population in Thailand, the Thai government’s failure to formalise refugee protections has left thousands of individuals in a paralysing legal limbo, constantly fearful of arrest.”
Thailand’s Human Rights Commissioner Ankhana Neelapaijit told Asian Correspondent the commission will soon investigate Zainab Bi Bi’s death.
Neelapaijit said she recently visited a number of immigration detention centres and will work “tirelessly” to give recommendations to the government on alternative detention.
The commission additionally seeks to amend Thailand’s Immigration Act, which currently does not differentiate between refugees and other foreigners.