Rights groups welcomed the Thai government’s announcement this week that it was moving to reduce the confinement of children of refugees and foreign migrants at detention centers, but they also expressed concern about families being potentially separated.
The government announced Monday that the national police and other state agencies that handle refugees and migrants had signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at stopping the incarceration of children at immigrant detention centers nationwide.
Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister for security affairs, led the signing ceremony for the MoU. It will take effect within 30 days and calls for migrant or refugee children under 18 years old to be detained only as a last resort – and for the shortest possible time – Thai officials said.
After the signing of the MoU, FortifyRights, Human Rights Watch and five other rights advocacy groups issued a joint statement applauding Thailand’s move as a step in the right direction, but said more needed to be done.
“Thailand took a positive step forward today to protect the rights of refugees and children, but concerning gaps remain,” said Amy Smith, the executive director of FortifyRights. “The MoU doesn’t address the separation of families, and detained refugee mothers are still required to pay exorbitant bail fees simply to reunite with their children, while fathers remain in detention.”
Cash bail for a mother’s release is as high as 50,000 baht (U.S. $1,500), according to the joint statement.
“Therefore the mothers are kept at the detention center, while children are in children’s homes under the handling of the Ministry of Social Development and NGOs as a case manager,” Puttanee Kangkun, a Thai human rights specialist for Fortify Rights, told BenarNews by phone on Tuesday.
She said the immigration bureau recently released 12 mothers from detention but there are about another 20 mothers incarcerated in facilities and waiting to post bail to reunite with their children, who were being cared for at government-run shelters.
There are less than 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers in urban areas in Thailand, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.
The U.N. agency also praised Thailand’s move, saying it reflected the government’s “commitment and progress to end the detention of refugee and asylum seeker children.
The MoU provides “a framework for the release of all children detained in Immigration Detention Centers in Thailand,” UNHCR said in a statement.
However, “as an immediate next step,” it also urged Thailand to release all detained mothers who are refugees and asylum seekers as well as allow all separated families to be reunited.
Responding to concerns raised by the rights advocates, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the Thai immigration chief, said his office could release mothers without bail.
“Regarding the bail fee, the immigration bureau could decide to release them temporarily without a bail fee at all. We will consider the human rights as a priority,” Surachate told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“Therefore, mothers can stay with their children who are under care at the Social Development Ministry’s shelter. The mothers can stay there in the shelter, or in a residence provided by the UNHCR,” Surachate said.