Most of the 77 migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who have been held in two overcrowded cells at immigration detention offices in Bangkok have become infected with Covid-19 in a case that has highlighted the parlous conditions at Thai detention centers for migrants and asylum seekers.
The 77 migrants were detained for having entered Thailand overland illegally, according to police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk.
None of the officers who have been in contact with the migrants have tested positive, he said.
For years, rights advocates have been campaigning for better conditions at Thailand’s overcrowded immigration detention centers where detainees are forced to spend almost all their time in prison-like settings inside overcrowded and highly unhygienic cells.
Some of the detainees at these facilities are Christians from Pakistan who fled their homeland in fear for their lives only to end up being detained in Thailand after their tourist visas had expired.
“It feels like being in hell in there,” a Pakistani Christian from Karachi who spent time in a notorious immigration detention center in Bangkok told UCA News.
“Many people are sick [with various ailments], but no matter what your problem is, the guards give you aspirin or painkillers.”
Rights advocates say conditions at Thailand’s immigration detention centers do not meet international norms and so violate the rights of detainees while also endangering their health and mental well-being.
Many of the detainees are also kept indefinitely, often for several years, with little hope of getting out despite having committed no crime beyond overstaying their visas.
Making matters worse for many asylum seekers, including Christians from countries such as Pakistan where their lives might be at risk, is that the Thai government does not recognize their right to refugee status.
“Thai law does not provide formal legal status to refugees and asylum-seekers. They are therefore trapped in a life of perpetual insecurity, knowing that they could be arrested, detained or deported at any time,” rights group Amnesty International explains.
“Those who are arrested often find themselves detained for months or years in overcrowded immigration detention centers, which refugee rights advocates call ‘worse than prison,’” Amnesty International says.
Because of the permanent overcrowding and unhygienic conditions at holding centers for migrants and asylum seekers, there have long been fears that Covid-19 and other infectious diseases can easily spread among detainees.
“The continued detention of refugees and migrants is not only a human rights concern but also a public health concern,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a prominent rights group.
“With a global health crisis underway, Thai authorities should prioritize potential Covid-19 hotspots, such as detention facilities, to prevent transmission.”
However, despite such calls, Thai authorities continue to hold large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers at congested detention facilities.
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