THE situation of refugees in Thailand is again under scrutiny, with a rights group calling for the investigation of a child who died in immigration detention on Nov 2.
Fortify Rights is calling for an immediate investigation into the death of a 16-year-old Rohingya Muslim named Zainab Bi Bi, who reportedly collapsed in Thai detention in late October with bleeding on her brain and died six days later.
“Zainab Bi Bi’s death is a tragedy that should spur Thai authorities to take immediate action to end the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers,” Fortify Rights executive director Amy Smith said.
Fortify Rights said the girl had been detained in Thai immigration facilities for years after being trafficked from Burma (Myanmar) in 2014. “Instead of receiving the highest level of care and protection as a refugee child, Zainab Bi Bi died behind bars,” Smith said.
“Detention cells are not a safe or appropriate place for refugee children.”
While Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it has for decades housed populations fleeing violence and persecution from neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. There remain around 100,000 Burmese in refugee camps in Thailand.
Recent crackdowns against asylum seekers – including a raid last week which led to the arrest of at least 19 child migrants in Bangkok – come amid a major humanitarian crisis in Burma’s Rakhine State which has seen more than 600,000 people flee into Bangladesh since Aug 25.
In September, Thailand’s government said it was “preparing to receive” people fleeing persecution and violence in Burma. “We will provide them with shelter like in the past … and send them back when they are ready,” said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Nevertheless, along with other migrants from Burma in Thailand, Rohingya refugees have long suffered at the hands of authorities. Thai migration law does not differentiate between refugees and other foreigners, leaving them subject to arrest, indefinite detention and deportation.
An Amnesty International report released in September documented many cases where Thailand breached the international legal principle of “non-refoulement” by forcibly returning asylum seekers to their country of origin. This has included at-sea “push-backs” of boats carrying fleeing Rohingya.
Back in 2013, Thai authorities were found to have been selling Rohingya refugees to human traffickers. A senior minister said at the time that Rohingya refugees were “feigning pitifulness” to garner sympathy which was giving Thailand a bad name.
In July, 21 people were sentenced in the country’s largest-ever human trafficking trial after mass graves including the bodies of many Rohingya refugees were found on the Thai-Malaysia border in 2013.
Traffickers had been holding migrants hostage in a squalid jungle camp demanding payment from relatives for their release, operating with the tacit support of local Thai authorities.
Fortify Rights this week called for an immediate end to Thailand’s “appalling treatment” of refugees and to not let “another refugee die behind bars like a criminal.”