Songkhla Immigration Detention Center, Thailand. Photo: Fortify Rights
Songkhla Immigration Detention Center, Thailand. Photo: Fortify Rights

Thai authorities should stop detaining migrant and refugee children and protect the rights of all children regardless of their nationality or legal status, the human-rights group Fortify Rights has urged.

The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand reported last week on the custodial death of Zainab Bi Bi, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl who died in detention in Thailand last year. The NHRCT report reaffirms the international legal standard that children should not be detained for immigration-related purposes.

“A child is a child regardless of their nationality or legal status, and they deserve real protection rather than a dank cell,” said Eric Paulsen, legal director of Fortify Rights. “Thai authorities must prioritize the best interest of migrant children above all else and find ways to protect them.”

Last Friday, a week after publication of the NHRCT’s report and on the anniversary of the death of Zainab Bi Bi, Thai authorities transferred all migrant children and their mothers out of the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok.

In 2014, Zainab Bi Bi fled human-rights violations in her home town in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar and traveled by sea to Thailand, where the Thai authorities detained her for more than three years until her death on November 2, 2017.

Songkhla Immigration Center
Songkhla Immigration Detention Center, Thailand. Photo: Fortify Rights

On October 12, 2017, Zainab Bi Bi was hospitalized after experiencing stomach pain and vomiting. The authorities returned her to Sadao Immigration Detention Center (IDC) after she received treatment. On October 27, she fainted and bled from her nose and ears while detained. She died six days later in the hospital.

On November 10, 2017, Fortify Rights called on the Thai authorities to investigate her death immediately, and also jointly submitted with Thai civil-society organizations a letter requesting the NHRCT to investigate her death. Later that month, the NHRCT began an investigation led by commissioner Angkhana Neelapaichit into Zainab Bi Bi’s death.

On October 31 this year, the NHRCT published its findings on the case of the custodial death of Zainab Bi Bi in a report dated October 3, 2018. The report found that although the Sadao IDC and hospital staff adhered to appropriate procedures, the Thai authorities should not have detained Zainab Bi Bi in the first place.

The NHRCT report states that Zainab Bi Bi was a child in accordance with Article 4 of Thailand’s Child Protection Act 2003 (CPA) and therefore the best interest of the child should have been the primary consideration in all measures affecting her.

Further, the report concluded that there should have been no discrimination regardless of her legal status as per Article 22 of the CPA. The report made no conclusion on whether Zainab Bi Bi’s failed health was a direct result of prolonged detention under inhumane conditions.

“It’s important that we were able to investigate the death of the girl,” Angkhana told Fortify Rights. “My work as a National Human Rights Commissioner is to make sure the rights of all people are protected, including migrants and refugees. It’s regrettable that Zainab Bi Bi died alone here in Thailand.”

In 2016, Fortify Rights documented inhumane conditions in the Songkhla IDC. Rohingya detainees at that center told Fortify Rights they were confined indoors 24 hours a day in overcrowded, unsanitary cells without access to adequate hygiene, adequate food, physical exercise, or appropriate medical treatment.

In its report, the NHRCT recommends that Thai authorities develop alternatives to the detention of children and their parents and further calls on the Royal Thai Police to hasten implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding on Ending Child Detention as previously agreed upon.

The report also calls for government agencies to develop these procedures in accordance with an ongoing effort, led by the Royal Thai Police, to develop procedures on the “Management of Undocumented Migrants and Refugees,” further to a cabinet resolution on January 10, 2017.

The report also calls for the Immigration Bureau to clarify the definition of a “child” under the Immigration Act of 1979 so that it is consistent with the definition of a child under the Child Protection Act of 2003 and the applicability of the principle of the “best interest of the child.”

The NHRCT will forward its report to the Immigration Bureau and the ministries of Interior, Social Development and Human Security, Foreign Affairs, and Labor as well as the Royal Thai Police, the National Security Council, and the Office of Attorney General for their further consideration and action.

Despite the commitment to end child detention by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on September 20, 2016, at the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis in New York and the development of a Memorandum of Understanding to End Child Detention, Thai authorities are still arresting and detaining child migrants and refugees, Fortify Rights said.

“The detention of children can have a profound negative impact on their health and development,” Paulsen said. “The longer that children are detained, the higher the risk they will suffer depression and anxiety now and later in life. It is well within the capacity of the Thai authorities to end this pernicious practice.”

This article was adapted from a press release by Fortify Rights.

Puttanee Kangkun is a human rights specialist with Fortify Rights. Her work is to advocate for better protection of people on the move to Thailand and within Southeast Asia.