Monday, October 6, 2014

Activists hopeful on Thailand’s detention of migrant children

Women hide their faces as children sleep after being detained at a rubber plantation in Hat Yai district of Songkhla province southern Thailand earlier this year. Pic: AP.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) may have released a pointed critique of Thailand’s child migrant detention practices last week, but the author of that report has since followed up with far more diplomatic statements about how the Southeast Asian nation’s government can move forward on the issue.

“We are encouraged that the Thai government has engaged with us in a dialogue on how to improve the situation for migrant children in detention,” Alice Farmer, a children’s rights researcher for the NGO who interviewed 41 young migrants for her report, tells Asian Correspondent. She adds: “This is an excellent time for the government to build toward fundamental change. The government should immediately end immigration detention of children, and in the interim period, vastly improve its conditions of detention.”

But not everyone shares her optimism, especially after HRW made Farmer’s findings public on Sept. 2. Her report outlined how Thailand annually detains 100 children who arrive as relatives of migrant workers or refugees from Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Sri Lanka and other nearby countries. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs countered with the following statement:

Detention of some small number of migrant children in Thailand is not a result of the government’s policies but rather the preference of the migrant parents themselves. The Thai government is trying its best to address and accommodate the needs of migrant children bearing in mind the humanitarian consideration and fundamental human rights.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Asian Correspondent’s repeated interview requests before presstime.

Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a research and policy officer for a local NGO called Migrant Working Group, said the government’s public response is troubling.

“From that statement, It can be seen that protecting these migrant children is not a high priority for them,” Kerdmongkol, told Asian Correspondent, adding: “The government’s statement does not focus on the impact that would result from children being detained in these centres, both physically and mentally. And there are no clear guidelines about how it plans to proceed.”

Skeptics may believe that the government’s future plans will be of no benefit to these marginalised youth, especially because accusations of other human rights violations — such as press and free speech crackdowns — have abounded since the current junta took power in a military coup on May 22. But Jeffrey Labovitz, head of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Thailand, says there have been signs of progress in the government’s child migrant practices.

“One Stop Service Centres (OSSC’s), with offices in each province, have provided temporary registration to over a million previously undocumented migrants,” Labovitz — whose branch of the IOM released its own report about Thailand’s transients in 2011— says, adding that after applicants finish at those service centres their “country of origin needs to verify their nationality, and then the documentation will be completed in a final process.”

Kerdmongkol agreed that these registration efforts have the potential to help many young migrants, before pointing out their major flaws: “For the children that are able to be registered, their legal statuses and other rights are protected. But many children are not able to be registered because their parent’s Thai employers do not assist with the process. It is also frequently unclear how the migrants’ country of origin can prove their nationality.”

While these and other government missteps may leave many migrant children in limbo, Farmer is still hopeful that those practices will improve. Her optimism has not been dimmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ attempts to deflect blame in its aforementioned public statement. In fact, that department has given Farmer far more promising updates from behind closed doors.

“The Thai Ministry for Foreign Affairs chaired a meeting with Human Rights Watch on this topic. It’s encouraging that the government is willing to engage on this issue and we look forward to finding constructive solutions,” she says.

Farmer declined to give details about the NGO’s meeting with the ministry, but one of her colleagues says that there are many other organisations willing to hold similar talks with that branch of the government.

“There is such a strong interest in the diplomatic community and among UN agencies to help Thailand forge alternatives to detaining children,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division, adding that the government has worked on several promising initiatives as of late, such as sending Burmese Rohingya children to shelters, and releasing some detained refugees on bail. But he adds that those efforts “are still nascent and far from what is needed for a truly rights respecting process. So people need to push Thailand on… ending indefinite detention of (all) refugee and migrant children.”

Farmer admits that these first steps are promising, but adds that the work to save Thailand’s migrant children has barely begun. She goes on to rebuke the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ public response to her report, and its claim that migrant children are only held because parents want to keep their kin close.

“The Thai government’s detention regime puts some parents in a very difficult place, forcing them to choose between detention or family separation. Some other parents have no choice at all, and the government mandates that the whole family stays in detention,” Farmer says. “Either is a wrenching situation for parents to face. No one wants to see their child in detention, but the Thai regime forces parents into that position. Thailand should prioritize release of refugee children and their families. There are many alternatives to detention, including open shelters and release programs, that are far better for these extremely vulnerable families.”