(New York) – The government of Thailand should immediately investigate the death of a Pakistani man in immigration detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The case points to the need for Thailand to urgently end the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers.
On May 27, 2017, Ijaz Masih, a 36-year-old Christian Pakistani, had a heart attack at the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, where he had been detained for more than a year on an illegal entry charge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had rejected his refugee claim the day before. He died shortly after he was transferred to the Police General Hospital.
“Thai authorities are putting people who seek refugee protection at grave risk by keeping them in awful conditions in immigration detention centers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Ijaz Masih’s death should be a wake-up call to end this abusive policy of incarcerating asylum seekers awaiting application results and refugees.”
Ijaz Masih was one of hundreds of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers who claim to have been persecuted in Pakistan and ended up in squalid immigration detention centers in Thailand, where authorities treat them as illegal immigrants without rights – including asylum seekers, as well as those recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. In Pakistan, members of religious minorities face discrimination, criminal charges of blasphemy, and other forms of persecution – including violent attacks.
Under Thai law, all migrants with irregular immigration status – including children, asylum seekers, and recognized refugees – can be arrested and detained for illegal entry. Many immigration detention centers in Thailand are severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation, and lack access to medical service and other basic necessities. Detainees are restricted to small cells resembling cages, where they barely have room to sit, much less sleep. Children are frequently incarcerated with adults.
Thailand’s immigration detention facilities have long been reported to fall far short of international standards, but the Thai government has not acted to address the serious problems. Human Rights Watch documented these shortcomings in a comprehensive report on immigration detention of children in 2014, and a report on the treatment of refugees – including the detention of urban refugees – in 2012.
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has never enacted a law to recognize refugee status and set out procedures to assess asylum claims. Given its own lack of asylum procedures, the Thai government should respect UNHCR-issued persons-of-concern documents and refrain from detaining people who have pending claims for international protection. Besides ending the detention of asylum seekers, Thailand should also adopt alternatives to detention that are being used effectively in other countries – such as open reception centers and conditional release programs.
“The Thai government should recognize that its punitive detention policy towards asylum seekers is both inhumane and counterproductive,” Adams said. “Punishing people who are fleeing ghastly conditions at home will not keep them away but just add to their misery.”