BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An 8-year-old Sri Lankan refugee girl spent two years crammed in a cigarette smoke-filled cell with many adults, developing a rash all over her body.
A Somali infant lived more than three years in an overcrowded and unsanitary room.
Due to a lack of space, a 9-year-old girl and her younger brother regularly slept sitting up during their three-year detention.
Every year, Thailand arbitrarily and indefinitely detains thousands of child migrants and asylum seekers due to their immigration status or that of their parents, according to a new report from the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The children are exposed to violence, denied access to education, nutritious food, and space for recreation, and held in squalid conditions in what amounted to a “modern-day debtor’s prison” until their parents could pay for their repatriation, said the report.
Such detentions are not in accordance with international law, violate children’s rights, risk their health and wellbeing and threaten their development, the U.S.-based rights group added.
Thailand does not have a refugee framework or national asylum system. Under Thai immigration law, foreigners without valid visas are considered illegal immigrants and risk arrest, detention and deportation.
“Deprivation of liberty, especially on an arbitrary basis and without adequate judicial review, is a very serious human rights violation and for that to be visited against very small in children is really problematic,” Alice Farmer, children’s rights research at HRW and author of the report, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Particularly disturbing, Farmer said, is a common practice in which pregnant women are taken to the hospital to give birth but brought back to the detention facility just days later with the newborn child.
“That’s no environment for a child to grow up in,” she said.
According to the report, around 100 children per year are detained on a long-term basis - longer than one month - while at least 4,000 are detained for days or weeks in Thailand’s immigration detention centers.
The report, based on 105 interviews, urged Thailand to cease the practice.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Thailand is party, detention of any type should only be used against children as “a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
Thailand, however, “deprives children of their liberty as a routine response to irregular entry, rather than as a measure of last resort,” and the detention can be indefinite, HRW said.
Migrants lack reliable mechanisms to appeal against their detention and information on the duration of the detention, amounting to “arbitrary detention prohibited under international law,” said the report.
Refugee families, on the other hand, have to choose between remaining locked up indefinitely, waiting for the slim chance of resettlement in a third country, or paying for their own return to a country where they fear persecution, it added.
Reputable medical studies have shown that indefinite detention can have a devastating effect on children’s mental health, said the report.
Children and their parents interviewed for the report told HRW of a variety of mental health problems including depression, sleep problems, isolation and detachment.
“Some of these children have left very dangerous situations at home and have seen trauma both at home and in the course of fleeing their country,” Farmer said.
“So then when they seek refuge in Thailand and are locked up, that detention can exacerbate the trauma that they’ve previously seen,” she added.
HRW said countries such as Philippines have been using alternatives to detention such as open reception centers and conditional release programs which are cheaper and respect children’s rights.
As Thailand campaigns for a seat on the 2015-2017 United Nations Human Rights Council, now is a “great opportunity” for the country to improve its rights record, Farmer said.
“The number of children in long-term detention is not very high so it’s not too expensive to do this,” Farmer said. “Thailand has the capacity to do it.”
Editing by Ros Russell.