Thai detention camps: A living hell for children

BANGKOK - Kah, a 17-year-old Burmese, was detained by Thai authorities for one month in Chiang Mai after he was found without documents. He was kept in a filthy cell with about 50 men and one five-year-old boy.

The boy's mother, held in a different cell, could only see him one hour every day. She spent a lot of time sitting by the cell door calling his name. There is nothing much Kah and his fellow detainees could do, except to try to make the distraught boy laugh.

An uncertain fate awaits children of asylum seekers and illegal migrants when their parents are detained in Thailand, according to a new report by international advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, launched on Tuesday (Sept 2).

Many are held alongside their parents in detention centres so cramped that each person has barely space to sleep. The toilets are shared between so many people that some choked, and meals are made up of just rice and soup.

The children stay in there for anything from a few days to a few years. In the process, they are exposed to disease, malnutrition and violence.

Newborns are not spared. According to the study, pregnant detained women are returned to their cells with their infants a few days after giving birth and have to simply cope with the bare conditions within.

One Sri Lankan asylum seeker was held in a Bangkok facility with her husband and three children for at least three years. Her youngest child was just 10 months old when they were detained. 'We didn't have diapers," she said. "The baby would wake up soaked in urine."

Human Rights Watch interviewed 105 people between June and October last year (2013), including 41 children under the age of 18.

The group found that with little room to walk, some children developed physical problems. A girl who was nine years old when detained told interviewers: 'When I first got out, it was hard to run. I got…cramps."

Others become withdrawn, especially when faced with an indefinite period of detention. A six-year-old boy, who was active before he entered the detention centre, turned to "just sitting and lying down." His mother said: "He wasn't talking."

The report's author Alice Farmer, who has looked into how countries like Indonesia, Britain, and Italy handle the same issue, says: "I was surprised by the severity of the situation in Thailand."

She estimates that 4,000 to 5,000 children pass through Thailand's immigration detention centres each year, out of which about 100 to 200 end up there on a long-term basis.

According to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as at Aug 6, 2014, there were 144 children in the main immigration detention centres of Bangkok and Songkhla, a southern province.

There are many reasons why they end up there: Thai law allows any foreign national who enters the country illegally to be detained pending deportation, which will be done at his or her own expense. Those who cannot pay, or face persecution in their home countries, risk an indefinite wait in a detention centre.

The Thai foreign ministry, in response to the report, says women and children awaiting deportation are housed in a shelters. But some children "are not able to tell their real ages or intentionally lie about it" to stay with their fathers or male migrants and end up in detention centres.

The detention of children was the result of "the preference of their migrant parents themselves" as well as "logistical difficulties" rather than government policy, it said.

Ms Farmer tells The Straits Times: "It's a choice between a rock and a hard place." Parents choose to take their children into detention centres with them because they would otherwise risk losing touch with their children indefinitely.

She stresses that there are more humane and financially viable options to detention. In the Philippines, for example, refugees and asylum seekers are issued documents and released on condition that they report themselves periodically and comply with the refugee determination process. This is more sustainable, and also develops self-reliance, she says.

tanhy@sph.com.sg