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Thailand Should Free Detained Migrants Amid Pandemic

Covid-19 Infections Spread Like Wildfire in Squalid Lockup

At least 65 detainees in Thailand’s Songkhla immigration detention center – including 18 ethnic Rohingya women and children – tested positive for Covid-19, raising serious concerns about the health and safety of refugees and migrants held in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.

The squalor and inadequate medical care in Thailand’s immigration detention centers are well-documented. With hundreds of people crammed together, sleeping and eating in the same space and sharing bathroom facilities, social distancing and other measures to prevent infections are impossible. In such conditions, Covid-19 can quickly spread, infecting detainees as well as staff who return home each day, bringing the disease into the surrounding community.

A photo showing Bangkok Immigration Detention Center taken in January, 2020. At least 65 detainees in Thailand’s Songkhla immigration detention center have tested positive for Covid-19. © Sunai Phasuk/Human Rights Watch

The test results at the Songkhla facility came about two weeks after an immigration officer, who later tested positive for Covid-19, visited the center. Now the remaining 50 detainees are also at risk. The lack of action to protect them and the wretched conditions they endure makes Thailand’s frequent claims about respecting the rights and welfare of refugees and migrants ring hollow.

Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and unsafe conditions in home countries, refugees and migrants can become stuck in indefinite immigration detention in Thailand. For many, as in the cases of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar and Uyghurs from China, neither resettlement nor repatriation is possible.  

To stop the spread of Covid-19 inside immigration detention centers, the Thai government should heed recommendations by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies by either releasing detained refugees and migrants or finding alternatives that allow for adequate space for social distancing and enabling migrants to secure food, hygiene products, and health care for at least the duration of the pandemic.

The Thai government should also ensure refugees and migrants have access to health services, including prevention, testing, and treatment, and are effectively included in the national response to Covid-19.

In addition, the Thai government should consider a temporary moratorium on police checks for migration documents. Temporarily ending arrests of migrants would prevent further overcrowding and the risk of exposure to the virus at immigration detention facilities. Migrants will not seek testing and treatment if they fear arrest – to the detriment of all.

Respecting everyone’s rights, including those of refugees and migrants, should be a cornerstone of Thailand’s response to the pandemic and will have a positive impact on public health.

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