'OH GOD, TAKE US AWAY FROM THIS COUNTRY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE'
A BBC journalist has blagged his way into the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok to broadcast a scathing report on Thailand which he says welcomes tourists but refuses to help anyone seeking refuge. The report by Producer-reporter Chris Rogers was broadcast yestersay and today and will be broadcast again. tomorrow on BBC Our World. The documentary, which may have been overshadowed in the British media by the deaths of three backpackers in Vietnam, tells the story of Pakistani Christians who have fled attacks by Muslims and arrived in Thailand. One Pakistani woman is heard saying: “Oh God, take us away from this country as soon as possible." And it describes how, despite applying for UN asylum seekers status and carrying UNHCR papers, they are regularly rounded up and repeatedly fined (4000 baht in court or 50,000 direct to the Immigration Department). The IDC is bulging. Local Christian charities are supporting the Pakistani Christians but the Thai authorities appear to be fed up with the slow process of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) . They arrest and re-arrest. Many Pakistanis are shackled in jails purely for being asylum seekers. Mothers are separated from their children, husbands from their wives. Children are kept in the jails contrary to the UN convention Thailand has signed. The Thai government says it rounds up people who could be considered as terrorists or criminals – that includes apparently, Pakistanis, Somalis and Palestinians.
The UNHCR does admit that the conditions under which the Pakistanis are held are ‘unacceptable’. The BBC and others say it is ‘inhumane’ and Thailand is in breach of UN charters which it has signed. Thailand has already been damaged by allegations of the human trafficking of Rohingyas, slavery of Burmese and Cambodians in its fishing industry, illegal actions against Burmese in its fruit canning industry and it’s anybody’s guess what next. This report was understandably not undertaken by the BBCs Bangkok based journalists.
Chris Rogers in the IDC
The text of Chris Roger's story can be found at this link. But I have copied below as the programme itself will not be available on this link to BBC iplayer in Thailand. I myself have been into the IDC many times although I have been asked not to reveal how I did it. Chris Rogers was happy to say that a charity group helped him in. The urgency of the report was more important than the repercussions which may follow.
The names of most interviewees have been changed, for their safety
Chris Rogers reports for Our World: Thailand's Asylum Crackdown on the BBC News Channel on 27 and 28 February at 21:30 GMT and BBC World News starting on 26 February (click here for transmission times) "This isn't supposed to happen. All registered asylum seekers are issued with a UN document, which certifies them as an "internationally recognised UN person of concern". This means they should not be arrested or detained for seeking asylum while the UN investigates their case.
Earlier I met one man called Sabir, who fled Pakistan two years ago with his wife, Laila, their two daughters, Laila's parents, and her siblings and grandparents. They shared a small, sparse room with no kitchen or toilet, all 10 of them - until Laila was arrested two months ago.
Sabir hasn't seen her since and sobs that he is lost without her. He doesn't regret leaving Pakistan though, where he says a gang threatened to kill his family if they didn't convert to Islam. "Over here, the only fear we have is of the immigration police, nothing else," he says.
But the UN won't investigate his asylum case until 2018. He says he's been told there is a backlog.
In a statement to the BBC, the UNHCR admits it is struggling. "Amid the context of today's acute global humanitarian funding crunch, it is correct that at present we are facing long delays in the processing of asylum claims with funding for Thailand at only a third of the level needed." But it adds that it has managed to prevent the arrest of more than 400 "people of concern to UNHCR" in the last six months, by insisting on their status as registered asylum seekers.
Meanwhile the Thai government complains the UN's inactivity is "creating far-reaching impacts on its security" - a reference to Thai fears that immigrants from Pakistan could be involved in terrorism - "leading to a number of arrests of illegal immigrants in the past year".
Anyone arrested - Sabir's wife, for example - is taken to Bangkok's filthy and overcrowded immigration detention centre
Thailand's immigration detention centre
Journalists and cameras are not allowed inside but volunteers delivering much-needed fresh water and food for inmates are, and that is how I enter, with other members of the BBC crew. Wearing search-proof hidden cameras we nervously pass through security checks and hand over our water and food to be checked by the guards.
We are led to a large, stiflingly hot room, crammed with hundreds of asylum seekers pressing their faces against a wire-mesh internal barrier. They are nearly all Pakistani Christians. For one hour a day, some of the 200 asylum seekers held here are let out of their cells to see visitors.
The men are semi-naked. Unaware we are BBC journalists, they tell us it's the only way to keep cool in the overcrowded cells they're kept in. The women cradle their children and babies. Many complain their children are suffering from diarrhea and vomiting because of poor sanitation and dirty drinking water. The room gets noisy as the inmates cry out to the visiting charity workers for their help to get released, but food and clean drinking water are all they can offer. One mother tells me she has been here for three months with her children. "The youngest is three and the eldest is 10. They are finding it very difficult being here, they are getting so ill," she says.
The Thai government says parents "often choose to have their children with them while in detention".
Yet the country has signed up to a number of UN international laws governing the humane treatment of prisoners and outlawing the imprisonment of children - particularly in centres holding adults.
None of the detainees I speak to have received legal assistance from the UNHCR since their arrest.
"We have no faith in the United Nations," 19-year-old Nazeem tells me, as she holds on to her baby cousin. "We only have faith in God. He will bring us freedom."
Their only way out of detention is for local charities to request bail from the Thai authorities. It costs about £900 ($1,250) to release one person, so they do this only for those deemed most vulnerable.
There are no official figures for the numbers arrested, but campaigners say it amounts to hundreds every month. It's alleged that 132 Pakistani Christians were arrested on one day alone in March last year. Altogether there are an estimated 11,500 Pakistani asylum seekers in Thailand, more than from any other country except Myanmar.
Suddenly I come across a young woman I was hoping to meet. There on the other side of the security cordon is Laila, Sabir's wife. It's an emotional meeting - she is obviously desperate to see her family. "I miss them, bring my daughters here so I can see their faces," she pleads. But the only way she is likely to see children for the foreseeable future, is if they are arrested too.
In its statement to the BBC, the UNHCR says it is working with the Thai government to find a solution. "Better and more humane management of the situation must be found in accordance with international legal norms," it says.
The Thai government insists that it strives "to provide the best possible care… based on international humanitarian principles."
Yet it inflicts an even worse fate upon some Pakistani Christians and their children. Those who are unable to pay the 4,000 Baht fine after they are arrested are thrown into one of Thailand's notorious jails.
Asylum seekers in shackles
This happened last year to a group of 20 Pakistani men, women and children. Separated from the women, the men's heads were shaved, and their ankles and hands placed in shackles.
"We had a lot of problem sleeping, sitting, standing up and walking," says one. "The chains weighed about 4kg or 4.5kg, and we used to have injuries on our ankles. We were in a lot of pain. It was very difficult for us."
One of his cellmates, Daniel, bursts into tears when he describes how the men were searched. "All we had to wear for clothing was a small piece of cloth," he adds.
The people charged with assuring the protection of these UN-registered asylum seekers were nowhere to be seen.
It was a local missionary who eventually bought their freedom.
But remarkably, Daniel is still able to invoke his faith's humility and forgiveness.
"Jesus said to us, 'If someone troubles you, don't ask for curses for him, instead, you should ask for blessings for him.' So, we ask for blessings for the UNHCR."