Bhavani was 8 years old when Thai police raided the apartment her family was hiding in. The Sri Lankan girl and her family spent the next two years locked in a crowded cell that reeked of cigarette smoke and waste.
Fights often broke out in a cell that was sometimes packed with more than 100 detainees, who had little room to sleep on bare floors and would develop skin rashes, they told a rights group investigating conditions. “When someone behaved badly to other people, I didn’t like that,” Bhavani told the activists. “They would shout at night.”
Bhavani’s tale is one of dozens contained in the Human Rights Watch report “Two Years with No Moon,” which was released today and details the conditions faced by thousands of migrant children sent to Thai immigrant detention centers each year, some of them held for years at a time. The New York-based group says the detentions are a violation of children’s rights and pose a risk to their health and development.
“Migrant children detained in Thailand are suffering needlessly in filthy, overcrowded cells without adequate nutrition, education, or exercise space,” said Alice Farmer, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The sad thing is it’s been known for years that these poor detention conditions fall far short of international standards, but the Thai government has done little or nothing to address them.”
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a seven-page response to the report, denied many of the allegations and said migrants are allowed to apply for release on bail. The ministry said migrant children and their mothers are often placed in government shelters, though sometimes they are held in detention centers if they don’t want to be separated from a detained member of the family.
“Detention of some small number of migrant children in Thailand is not a result of the government’s policies but rather the preference of their migrant parents themselves,” the ministry said in the letter dated Aug. 14 and released with the report. “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.”
There are at least 377,000 migrant children in Thailand, including 113,000 children of registered ethnic minorities, 128,000 children of registered migrant workers, 54,000 children of displaced persons and 82,000 children of unregistered migrants, according a 2011 report from the International Organization for Migration.
The largest group of child refugees in the country are from Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims, who have fled army attacks in minority areas or sectarian violence, Human Rights Watch said. Migrants from Myanmar and other neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos who are arrested typically spend a few days or weeks in Thai detention before being deported. It is migrants or asylum seekers from countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Syria who spend more time in detention.
“Refugee families from non-contiguous countries face the choice of remaining locked up indefinitely with their children, waiting for months or years for the slim chance of resettlement in a third country, or paying for their return to their own country, where they fear persecution,” the report said. “They are left to languish indefinitely in what effectively amounts to debtors’ prison.”
Pay for food
In interviews with more than 100 people, almost half children, many of whom had spent time in Thai detention centers, Human Rights Watch found that children don’t get the nutrition or exercise they need. Parents would often pay to have food smuggled in from outside. Women were brought back to detention with their newborn infants days after giving birth. The report also alleged that children, some unaccompanied, were routinely held with unrelated adults, a violation of international law.
“Thailand’s use of immigration detention has deeply harmed children’s development,” the report said. “Exceptionally vulnerable and at key developmental points in their lives, children in immigration detention risk psychological trauma, poor physical health, and setbacks in their educational and social development.”
The group is calling on Thailand to adopt alternatives to detention such as open reception centers and conditional release programs where children can remain with their families while their immigration status is resolved.
“Such programs are a cheaper option, respect children’s rights, and protect their future,” the report said.
For Bhavani, her two years in Thai detention ended when her family was released on bail while they went through the process of being resettled as refugees in the U.S., where they now live. When she learned she was leaving the detention center that had become her home, Bhavani told researchers she remembers feeling sadness for the friends she left behind.
“I knew they wouldn’t be coming out too.”