By Puttanee Kangkun in Bangkok Post
In April, a survey by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found refugees, migrants and stateless persons in Thailand face insufficient income and lack access to proper hygiene, sanitation facilities and information to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within their communities. But arbitrary arrest and the potential of indefinite detention during a time of pandemic poses an even bigger threat to these communities in Thailand, and to Thailand itself.
Refugees, migrants and stateless persons without proper travel documents or legal status are subject to arrest and detention for violating Thailand’s Immigration Act. Currently, Thai authorities are holding more than 1,500 detainees in 14 immigration detention facilities nationwide.
Immigration detention facilities are generally poorly equipped to deal with and prevent transmission of the virus. As described by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), immigration detention facilities are “high-risk locations for the spread of communicable infections, as they are often overcrowded and lack adequate healthcare, food, water, sanitation and hygiene.”
In late April and early May, 65 of 115 detainees in the Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Thailand’s Songkhla Province tested positive for Covid-19. At least 18 of these detainees are refugees who have been detained since 2015.
Although Thai public health authorities set up a field hospital inside the IDC, tested all of the detainees, segregated those with the virus, and hospitalised seven detainees with severe symptoms, the risk of transmission in detention remains high, as detainees lack the ability to protect themselves from Covid-19.
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In light of the global pandemic, the OHCHR and the UN Working Group on Alternatives to Immigration Detention has called for the release of detained migrants and “a moratorium on the use of immigration detention”.
But Thai authorities refuse to heed these calls — leaving people’s lives needlessly hanging in the balance.
“[The authorities] came to our community and knocked door to door,” a refugee from Vietnam living in Bangkok recently told me, describing an immigration raid that took place at the end of 2019. “We were terrified. We have lived quietly but we’re still not safe.”
While refugees, migrants and stateless persons face extreme threats in Thailand’s immigration detention facilities, there are also no guarantees outside of detention during these perilous times. With the borders closed until further notice, these wholly unprotected groups must find a way to survive in Thailand.
Most refugees, undocumented migrants and stateless people lack the right to work in Thailand and are, therefore relegated to abusive, exploitative and dangerous informal work environments. But even these opportunities are drying up with the economic shutdown.
While discussions are underway to support the unemployed through state relief, it is unlikely that refugees, migrants and stateless persons will have access to or benefit from it.
That’s not good for Thailand.
Comprising a population of more than three million, migrant workers in particular play a vital role in ensuring the health and well-being of Thailand’s economy. Although migrant workers help to keep food and other services affordable in Thailand, awareness of their contributions is low and xenophobic sentiment is high among Thais. This was particularly seen by the ugly spate of anti-migrant comments in Thai social media circles following reports of the outbreak of Covid-19 in the immigration detention facilities. This also explains lack of concern felt by Thais reading reports of Rohingya refugees adrift on boats in the Andaman Sea.
But Covid-19 does not distinguish between Thais and non-Thais. To prevent the spread of this virus, we must work together and respect the rights of all people in Thailand, including refugees, migrants and stateless persons.
And there is work that must be done. According to the IOM survey, information on Covid-19, its symptoms and practices to prevent its spread are limited among these particularly vulnerable populations. Half of the survey respondents reported little or no awareness of hand-washing practices, and 45% have little or no knowledge of Covid-19 symptoms.
The survey identifies literacy and language barriers as well as lack of access to digital technology as major barriers to accessing the necessary information. These barriers are not insurmountable, and the survey should guide government responses to Covid-19.
Regardless, one thing is clear: Thailand’s response to Covid-19 will fall flat if human rights are not taken into consideration.
To combat this virus, rights must be a priority.
This article was originally published in Bangkok Post here.