In December 2010, 85 Ahmadiyas were rounded up from their homes in Bangkok and sent to the Bangkok Immigration Detention Centre to be repatriated back to Pakistan. Nearly half of those detained were women and children. One woman was 7 months pregnant, and there were children as young as 2 years old. The persecution of Ahmadis has been particularly severe and systematic in Pakistan, which is the only state to have officially declared the Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and being persecuted for professing their religion. The systematic persecution of the community in Pakistan is also well documented by human rights groups.
The 94 released refugees have been officially recognized by the UNHCR. However Thailand does not recognize their refugee status and UNHCR recognition offers no protection against arrest and detention by Thai authorities. Refugees and asylum seekers are governed by the same Immigration Act and as such considered to be illegal aliens. In Thailand, the lack of distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and other immigration offenders contributes to the further victimization of those seeking protection from persecution. It is often a situation of despair as the only way out of it is resettlement to a third country or return back to their country of origin.
Conditions in the detention centre have been variously described as overcrowded, inhumane and unhygienic. Over 120 people have to share cells separated by gender which is meant for 30 to 40 people. Cells are so crowded that there is often no place for the detainees to sleep and families are separated from each other. In the women’s cell, women took turns to sleep as there wasn’t enough space and children were sleeping near toilets which often overflowed with faeces and urine.
Developments from January to June 2011
In response to this detention and similar detentions in the recent past, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) issued a statement in January 2011 demanding their release and other refugees and asylum seekers in detention. The statement was endorsed by members of the Network and submitted to the Prime Minister, The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, the National Security Council, the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When the Network did not receive a response to the statement from the concerned officials, the Secretariat along with the Chair of the South East Asia Working Group (Veerawit Tianchainan) demanded to meet with the Prime Minister. Simultaneously, the Network also met with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT). The NHRCT cognizance of the issue and along with members from APRRN and others conducted a fact finding mission to the Immigration Detention Centre. The mission was widely publicized. The Prime Minister’s office ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet with APRRN and resolve the issue.
As a response, to the openness of the Thai authorities, TCR created the Refugee Freedom Fund to bail the most vulnerable refugees who are in detention centre indefinitely. NHRCT arranged for a meeting on May 30, where TCR, APRRN, the Immigration Bureau and other agencies were invited to solve the issue. It was agreed that 94 refugees and 2 asylum seekers can be released on bail on June 6, 10 AM.
On June 6, there was an official event at the IDC Bangkok which was presided by the Chaiperson of the National Human Rights Commisssion, Dr. Amara Pongsapich. The meeting was also attended by the National Human Rights Commissioner, Dr. Niran Pithawatchara, Commissioner of the Immigration Bureau, Pol. Lt. Gen. Wiboon Bangthamai, Veerawit Tianchainan, Director of the Thai Committee for Refugees, Anoop Sukumaran, Coordinator, Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, members from the Ahmadiya Muslim Community and others. All 94 refugees and the 2 asylum seekers were released on bail on that day. After the release the refugees will continue to stay in Thailand until they get resettled. TCR will provide various services to them during this time and also help them to fulfill their reporting requirements at IDC.
Thai Civil Society taking a lead
It is important to highlight, that in the past refugee issues in Thailand were almost exclusively the purview of international organizations and international NGOs. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network has contributed to the change of these dynamics and the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation (TCR) took a lead in spearheading the campaign for the release of refugees and asylum seekers from detention. It was the first time that Thai civil society took ownership of the refugee issue which resulted in unprecedented response from the Thai authorities. While, in the past international organizations have been able to secure the release of individuals from detention on bail, for the first time the immigration authorities were now willing to consider the release of a large number of the refugee detainees.
To summarize, the release represents a historic development as it is the first time ever, that such a large number of detainees have been released and particularly that this was achieved by Thai civil society taking the lead in resolving of the refugee problem in Thailand. It is great to see that the refugees can be released on bail only 5 months after the APRRN statement was published.
Looking into long-terms solutions
In the long-term, it is hoped that leadership from the Thai civil society will continue changing the dynamics and that the Thai government will consider establishing a legal framework and systematic mechanism to deal with all asylum seekers and refugees seeking protection in Thailand. In an effort to so TCR and APRRN will launch a campaign on the Draft Bill of Domestic Legislation for refugees in Thailand. The campaign will be launched on World Refugee Day, June 20, and begin a campaign to get 10,000 signatures from Thai citizens which are needed in order to get the Draft Bill tabled for consideration in the parliament.
We recognize that the Refugee Freedom Fund is the first step in the direction towards a sustainable and long term solution. APRRN will continue to push for alternatives to detention. APRRN’s Immigration Detention working group (IDWG), The International Detention Coalition (IDC) along with UNHCR was instrumental in organizing the “South East Asia Consultation on Detention of Asylum Seekers and Refugees” in November 2010. As a result of which a Detention Task Force which was established in Thailand. The Task Force is coordinated by UNHCR and other members of the Task Force include Asylum Access Thailand, the Bangkok Refugee Centre, Jesuit Refugee Services and UNICEF. APRRN has provided input into this process with examples of alternatives to detention that are being practiced in different parts of Asia.
The International Detention Coalition has provided a handbook on alternatives to detention which was found to be very useful for the discussion.
In conclusion, APRRN believes that the release of the 96 detainees as the first step towards the achievement of the goal of ending arrest and detention of refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand and the region. We wish to thank all those involved for this landmark achievement.
From International Detention Coalition (Monday, June 6th, 2011)