Thailand’s outbreak spike exposes conditions in migrant detention centre

On April 25, 42 migrant detainees in Sadao’s Immigration Detention Center (IDC) tested positive for Covid – in a period where the government’s reported daily infection rates have descended into the single digits. But the falling numbers may raise false hopes – Sadao’s acting Immigration Police Chief Colonel General Mana Naktung told the press that the Covid-19 tests for the remaining 73 migrant detainees (of a total 115) were still pending.

In early to mid-March, Singapore was in a similar place Thailand appears to be in now. Daily infection rates were in the single digits, there had been zero deaths – there was a pervasive sense of triumph, from a nation that never locked down yet had earned the “Gold Standard.” But by the end of March, infection rates soared above one thousand, linked to cases in migrant dormitories.

“The crisis has laid bare the dizzyingly unequal conditions endured by Singapore’s army of 1 million imported, low-wage laborers who make up a largely invisible underclass in this wealthy nation,” wrote the LA Times.

“The virus does not accept this apartheid-type of segregation,” said the vice president of Transient Workers Count Too, “and then you have an explosion.”

The Thai government is less discriminatory in its exclusion – its ‘invisible underclass’ span indebted farmers who are unable to access the 5000-baht subsidy, indigenous people who fight their own forest fires, and sex workers who are ostracized by the legal apparatus. But few groups are as hidden – and as endangered – as migrant detainees in Thailand’s network of detention centers.

There are 22 detention centers in Thailand, housing ‘illegal immigrants’ – a category that ranges from visitors who have overstayed a 90-day tourist visa, to asylum seekers and refugees. They are notorious for their overcrowding. In 2014, Amnesty reported that official regulations allow for cell sizes to be a minimum of 1.19 meters per person.

Puttanee Kangkun of Fortify Rights says that the conditions in detention centers are even worse than in prisons. “The detention centers were meant for people to stay for 15 days, and then leave. But in Thailand, you stay there for years, and it’s not designed for that.” According to the Global Detention Project, the length of stay for detainees in Thailand has ranged from 3 days to 12 years, with asylum seekers and refugees in particular having been detained for periods of over 2 years as they wait for their cases to be processed.

Bangkok’s IDC in Suan Phlu is the focal point for this notoriety, as the IDC with the highest number of detainees. Detainees and NGOs maintain that there are over one thousand detainees in the center, but government officials have fervently resisted sharing or confirming numbers.

“It was so crowded some of us slept standing up, or in turns,” says a former Suan Phlu detainee, a Pakistani asylum seeker. “If you turn your legs, you will lose your space.” The detainees are separated by gender and perceived ethnicity – “Room 8 for the black people (คนดำ), Room 11 for the brown people (แขก),” the former detainee states matter-of-factly.

Measures have been put in place to mitigate this, including the expansion of Sadao’s IDC with a new building, and the relocation of detainees in Bangkok’s Suan Phlu IDC to detention centers outside of Bangkok. With Covid-19, the IDCs have also banned visitors and volunteers. As with prisons, the governing belief among officials is that if detainees haven’t already contracted the virus, they are at no further risk.

Puttanee says that the measures to reduce overcrowding have helped and believes that the government has been proactive in testing not just detainees but migrant workers in local communities.

But she questions the logic that detainees are so isolated as to be safe from the virus. “The detention centers are spaces where people continually move in and out [as they are detained and let go]. It’s not yet clear yet who the 42 people got Covid from, but they were detained in February, and we don’t know how many people passed in and out of their detention cell from February to April, or if they stayed together all the time.”

“If they received it from other detainees, then this is very concerning.”

While officials maintain that they are conducting widespread testing in detention facilities, other healthcare provisions are limited. According to Suan Phlu’s IDC regulations, one doctor from the Department of Disease Control is meant to visit weekly. In reality, Puttanee and former detainees confirm that there is only one nurse, who works with an NGO.

“There is a small clinic. But given the crowdedness of Suan Phlu, one nurse for one thousand people is not enough,” says Puttanee.

Another former detainee, a Somali woman, recounts her traumatic experience of illness in Suan Phlu. She was suffering a high fever, throwing up and had multiple fainting spells. It was clear that medicine from the IDC’s nurse was not helping. “I was scared for my life, and I didn’t know if I would be able to see a doctor,” she recalls. Eventually a private donor intervened and agreed to both guarantee her bail and pay her medical bills at an external private hospital, but without such singular assistance, she fears she would not have survived.

“Normally, it is very difficult to get out to seek medical assistance,” says Puttanee. She speaks of Fortify Rights’ own efforts to negotiate the release of a sick asylum seeker, but it took an entire year before she was let out to see a doctor.

The IDC’s reluctance to send its detainees to hospitals is not just a function of security, but also of expense. On most occasions, the state has to shoulder the cost of treating a sick detainee. Officials have admitted to Puttanee that the Immigration Bureau is in debt in excess of one million baht to the police hospital, from paying for detainees’ medical care.

Spotlight on detention centers

With the Covid-19 spotlight on detention centers, officials are being much more careful – both in the medical care offered to detainees, and in the narrative framed around them.

In the government’s address on April 25, Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesperson Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin assured the public that the detainees – mostly from Myanmar with some from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia – would all receive proper treatment in accordance with humanitarian standards.

Puttanee doesn’t believe that this is Thailand’s Singapore moment – for a start, Thailand’s detention centers are spread across the country, while Singapore’s over 300,000 migrant workers live in dormitories in close proximity.

However, she has observed a similar outburst of racism and xenophobia in response to the alarming April 25 announcement.

“Once it came out that those infected were foreigners, comments on social media and in Thai news were highly xenophobic. In a crisis like this, we’ve become more narrow-minded, as if your humanity is tied to your nationality.”

She points out that the government has not tried to perpetuate these racist sentiments, and that Dr. Taweesin’s statement was a good signal to the public.

In a moment when nativist sentiments are running high, navigating the fraught narrative on caring for immigrants is difficult. This, perhaps, is where the Singaporean government continues to fail, going so far as to separate their recorded cases between ‘imported’ and ‘local’. The People’s Action Party continually asserts the indivisible barrier between migrant workers and its citizens, even as the virus exposes this fallacy with devastating effect.

Equally, the UNHCR writes: “Detention facilities are not walled off from society when it comes to such a highly contagious virus as COVID-19.”

Hopefully April 25 was just a warning, and no more cases are discovered at Sadao. But it seems unlikely. Detainees are now an exceptionally vulnerable population – confined in tight spaces with little medical care, many without formal legal status anywhere in the world. They need as much attention, if not more, than others in Thailand’s ‘invisible underclass.’

“The Thai government has been quite responsive,” says Puttanee, “but some of these detainees don’t need to be detained in the first place.”

The UNHCR report recommends alternatives including the release of asylum seekers and refugees from detention. This has taken place in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Covid-19 unfailingly points its fingers at the deepest rot in society – in Singapore, this is its institutionalized racism, in the United States, its neoliberal healthcare system. In Thailand, among other things, this is its detention centers. The government is currently responsive to the situation, but this responsiveness must not go away after the crisis.

Save The Children and UNHCR have proposed multiple alternatives to Thailand’s indefinite and indiscriminate detention of migrants – many of whom are refugees and asylees. In June 2014, UNHCR developed a National Action Plan (NAP) in coordination with the Thai government, with its first goal being the end of child detention. Promises made on paper have, however, have not been put into action.

From 2016 to 2017, the Thai government assured the UN Human Rights Council and the Obama Summit that there was a “no child detention policy.” In 2019, the government declared triumphally in Khaosod English that there were no children held in any of its immigration detention facilities – confirmed by Human Rights watch.

But after the April 25 announcement, Police Chief Col Gen Mana Naktung revealed that there were children among the 115 migrants at Sadao.

The rot in Thai detention facilities runs far deeper than 42 infected detainees – it is the systematic accumulation of decades of detainee mistreatment, in which they have been denied bail, access to medical care and humanitarian conditions of detention. Visitors to Suan Phlu only have to stand behind the wire fence separating detainees from the outside world to grasp how chilling, primitive and prison-like the centers feel.

But Puttanee and others have highlighted clear progress in the last few years. Hopefully, the Covid-19 spotlight will accelerate this process in years to come.


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