Rohingya children face critical trafficking danger in Thailand
January 10, 2015
New research documents abuses by Thai authorities, who should take action against camps in southern Thailand used for trafficking Arakan and punish officials complicit in abuse.
As weather conditions improve, increased numbers of Arakan (Rohingya), a Muslim minority that is effectively denied citizenship in Burma, have been crossing to Thailand in often-rickety boats. This has included numerous children, many of whom are unaccompanied by parents.
“Arakan children need safe, secure environments after fleeing violence in Burma and enduring the trauma of difficult journeys,” said Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yet Thailand locks up many who reach its shores, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and further abuse.”
According to the WNN report, thousands of Arakan have passed through one of at least three “trafficking camps” in southern Thailand, where some have been held for ransom or sold to fishing boats and farms as manual laborers, according to Reuters and other media reports in December 2013.
The reports allege that Thai immigration officials collaborated with the traffickers by transferring Arakan held in Thailand to the custody of the traffickers. A high-ranking police official confirmed to journasits the existence of the camps and acknowledged an informal policy called “option two,” which relies on smuggling networks to expel Arakan migrants, including asylum seekers, from Thailand. The United Nations has called for an investigation into the reports Thai immigration officials moved refugees from Burma into human trafficking rings.
Thailand has no refugee law and does not allow Arakan to register asylum claims or to seek protection as refugees.
The 2,055 Arakan migrants Thailand permitted to enter the country in 2013 were treated as “illegal migrants” and did not receive protection as refugees under international law. The government separated families, holding adult men and some male children, including unaccompanied boys, in immigration detention centers, and detaining others, primarily women and younger children, in closed shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
New Human Rights Watch research shows that Arakan held in the Social Development Ministry shelters and immigration detention centers have had no legal options for regularizing their immigration status and leaving detention. This prolonged detention with no specified maximum period violates the international legal prohibition against indefinite detention. Meanwhile, children should never be detained because of their immigration status.
In recent months, most Arakan have escaped from the immigration detention centers and closed shelters, and gone further south in Thailand with the involvement of people smugglers and traffickers. Arakan told journalists that government officials played a role in these escapes by facilitating contact between the traffickers and the detainees. Children, particularly older boys, were reported to be among those trafficked. Since at least October 2013, some Arakan were “voluntarily” deported after the government gave them authorization forms in Thai – which most detainees could not read – without providing effective translation assistance. Some Arakan who agreed to voluntary deportation were not actually returned to Burma but were sold on to traffickers, according to media reports.
Dangers to children fleeing
Thailand’s immigration detention centers are squalid and in 2013 were severely overcrowded. In 2013, eight people died in detention from apparent poor health conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and lack of access to health care. Human Rights Watch research found that Thailand has inadequate screening procedures for unaccompanied migrant children, so in a number of cases, there were boys left in immigration detention centers with unrelated adults.
Human Rights Watch investigated conditions in some Thai immigration detention centers and shelters in mid-2013. While conditions in the closed Social Development Ministry shelters were better than those in the immigration detention centers, there were still numerous problems. Children were separated from male relatives, with little or no visitation opportunities, and in some cases, no information about the location of their family members. Children in shelters had little or no access to education.
The Thai government should urgently close down the camps in southern Thailand and prosecute government officials found to be complicit in trafficking from them, Human Rights Watch said. The government has an obligation under international law not to return Arakan seeking asylum to Burma before first making a fair assessment of their claims. If the Burmese government refuses to accept the return of stateless Arakan migrants, the Thai government should release them as there is no legitimate reason to detain people solely for immigration violations who cannot be repatriated.
For those individuals who are detained, the government should urgently improve its screening for unaccompanied migrant children and ensure that those children are not held in detention with unrelated adults. It should accommodate Arakan asylum-seeking children and their families in open shelters with guaranteed freedom of movement, and provide children access to education.
“Thailand is detaining Arakan children and leaving them vulnerable to the risk of trafficking,” Farmer said. “As boat traffic picks up, it’s vital that Thai authorities find solutions to keep Arakan children with their families in open centers, and provide them access to school.”
Human Rights Watch conducted research in Thai immigration detention centers and shelters in June-August 2013, interviewing some 100 detainees and witnesses, including several Arakan. Our research found that many immigration detention centers in Thailand are severely overcrowded, with detainees having limited access to medical services and other basic necessities. In some cases, authorities restricted Arakan detainees, including unaccompanied boys, in cramped conditions in small cells, with barely room to sit.
As of August 2013, some had been kept in cells for five months without any access to recreational space. Some suffered from swollen feet and what appeared to be withered leg muscles because of lack of exercise. Eight Arakan men died from illness while in detention in 2013. While intervention by international agencies had improved medical care somewhat after these deaths, detainees still face unacceptable risks to their health due to poor detention conditions.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which provides authoritative interpretations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stated that children should never be detained because of their immigration status. Unaccompanied children, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse in detention as they lack anyone to protect them, should never be held with unrelated adults.