1. April 2014

Bangkok Terminus – a visit to Thailand’s Immigration Detention Centre

A sudden activity sets in. People pull out their passports, pick up their bags, and look out for their colleagues or friends. When a gate opens, they intuitively line up in a cue. However, what sounds like the beginning of a journey, like the well-known procedure at the gate before boarding a plane, or when crossing a border post, is really the prelude to a visit to a place where journeys end.

Together with my colleagues from the Thai Committee for Refugees, who I joined in February, I visit Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC). This dire prison in the heart of the „City of Angels“, the capital of the great Kingdom of Thailand, is the place that most of the 7,500 refugees and asylum-seekers in the city probably fear most, only exceeded by the terrors they fled in their home countries.

The visitors, who are now handing in their passports or IDs in return for a locker key, to stow away anything which could be used to document the conditions inside the detention centre, are mainly foreigners. Among them, it is relatively easy to identify those well-off expats who work with the (to say the least) more disadvantaged migrants professionally or out of compassion or calling. But also the even bigger number of relatives of detainees whose tourist visas have not yet expired. Everyone’s bags contain fresh fruit and other food to supplement the scarce and monotonous diet provided by the immigration authorities. Some bring baby diapers and little toys. Supplying medicines is prohibited, even though rumour has it that the centre’s healthcare unit has little more to offer than paracetamol.

Apart from close to 150,000 displaced Burmese confined in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, Thailand is currently host to about 7500 ‘urban refugees’ and asylum-seekers. As in many countries, migration patterns change over time. Where people fleeing to the Kingdom used to predominantly come from neighbouring countries (Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, also Laos), the country has recently seen a massive influx of whole families from Pakistan and Syria, preceded by Sri Lankans. Relaxed tourist visa requirements and low airfares, both owing to Thailand’s tourism industry, make it an attractive destination for many who could never afford the dangerous services of human smugglers to reach Europe, let alone qualify for a Schengen visa.

Following global trends, the numbers surge: Catholic help organisations, which have been around for decades, point out that there used to be about 1,500 urban refugees. The United Nations unofficially expect a rise to 15,000 asylum seekers in 2015. Currently, 500 Pakistani arrive per month. This increase of course challenges and fundamentally threatens any support structure offered until now. Neither non-governmental organisations nor the UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) are able to increase their budget in any way mirroring this development.

And little help can be expected from the Royal Thai Government. Having never signed or ratified the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, Thailand feels under little obligation to treat asylum-seekers and refugees much differently from other illegal immigrants. Under domestic law, they are regarded as visa overstayers—not willing or able to pay the hefty fines and purchase a ticket to go back home.

This is how they end up in the IDC. Whereas „illegal workers“ from neighbouring countries get deported across the border within days—thanks to bilateral agreements, and often only to take yet another round across the green border, helped by smugglers or forced by traffickers—, for those from overseas there is no direct solution. Once arrested, many are trapped in the IDC for months or years, sometimes without any hope of release whatsoever.

We enter the prison yard. While scrambling in, we meet Abu (“dad”—as he introduces himself) from Syria, who arrived later than his wife and sons and thus still passes for a regular tourist. He will help us translate into and from Arabic. Food and other supplies are placed in baskets along with the detainee’s registration and cell number, to be later searched by the guards. The detainees are still waiting behind yet another high wall. The yard is divided into two areas by a parallel line of iron fences, forming a one meter-broad corridor. We wait on one side, while the detainees enter on the other: male and female detainees as old as 70 and as young as 11 months. All wear uniform bright orange t-shirts, weirdly reminding of Buddhist monks‘ robes. Hectically, friends and partners, fellows in misery, and beneficiaries of humanitarian goodwill try to pair up at the fences. Everyone tries to secure some of the scarce space. It soon becomes obvious why it is important to stand in the very front row: with less than one hour to go, about a hundred people populating the small walled yard, and with the iron wire-enforced distance, it becomes a challenge to understand a single word from the other side of the divide. Some couples soon revert to silently crying, or to exchanging smiles. With one person, neither firm in English nor Thai and with a very weak voice we eventually have to give up talking—he points to a scar on his throat that we struggle to hope stems from a surgery. First, a kind Filipino co-inmate translates and shouts over the fence for us. But of course, he couldn’t sacrifice all of the precious time he has with his mother.

There is little we can do, although that little might mean the world already. Apart from material goods, we deliver news from relatives who for fear of their own arrest couldn’t come themselves to those who couldn’t smuggle a cell phone in. We discuss the possibility of bailing out at least a family with small children, and those who have already been accepted by an industrialised country for permanent resettlement. We try to find out about those lost souls who, having come without friends or family, have been detained for, in one case, twelve years. It can be heart-breaking and equally frustrating at the same time: to meet someone who has been locked away so long he probably never learnt that his government had been removed in the meantime, yet by now is too leery of anyone to give us the necessary authorization to inquire his status with the UNHCR. His feeling of fear of persecution may be real, yet most likely so unfounded, legally, that he would never receive recognition as a refugee. Is it possible that someone consciously prefers to stay in a place so crammed that detainees must take shifts in sleeping, lacking enough space for everyone to lie down? Or is the question itself misplaced, given that this person isn’t given a choice anyways?

The one hour, as tiring and—visiting for the first time—horrifying as it has been, is over far too soon. Hectically, phone numbers and detainee numbers are jotted down, hand-written notes and other things are thrown over the fence in both directions. The guards shove us towards the exit, probably already granting us as much extra time as their understaffed work plan allows and their superiors can ignore. On the back side of the yard, we see some of the detainees taking of the orange shirts already. This way, they can better stand Bangkok’s 36°C in one of the city’s few un-air-conditioned buildings.

Suddenly out again, we can gather over an iced coffee to recap our “cases”. I suddenly remember the group of six probably Laotian young men and women, chained together at their wrists, who passed by when we arrived here. They must have reached the city limits by now, in the back of a black police truck. While we discuss the “longstayer” we met inside, Abu enters. A minute earlier, he received a call from the Dutch embassy: in a few months, his family will start a new life! It will still be difficult and away from home. But free.