Htee Yaw, a Myanmar migrant living and working in Chiang Mai, reported that police arrested and detained his 17-year-old brother for several weeks, without allowing any family members access to him, in December 2010.
Htee Yaw went to the police station and pleaded for his release: “They knew he was 17, my brother told them, I told them … He was arrested by the police and put in handcuffs, even though he was young and had committed no crime.”
Htee Yaw said he had to pay a bribe of Bt5,000 (US$167) to secure his brother’s release.
The story is part of a Human Rights Watch report released on September 1. Titled “Two Years With No Moon: Immigration Detention of Children in Thailand”, the report details dozens of cases of children detained on immigration grounds.
The international organisation estimates that at least 2,500 children from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos pass through the Bangkok immigration detention centres each year before being summarily deported. The largest group of refugees living in Thailand is from Myanmar.
As of 2013, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics said that there were 77,913 Myanmar refugees in camps in Thailand, 34,289 of whom were children. The Border Consortium, a non-governmental organisation providing assistance in border camps, estimated that there were 117,000 Myanmar refugees in the 10 camps they work in as of May 2014.
Most fled decades of fighting in Myanmar, and many children were born in Thailand to refugee parents. Some portion of the tens of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand are, in fact, refugees, but have not been officially recognised as such, in large part because they are precluded from lodging claims with the government or with UNHCR.
Some 92,000 Myanmar refugees were resettled from Thailand to third countries between 2005 and January 2014.
Political changes in Myanmar since 2011, including the signing of preliminary ceasefire agreements between the Myanmar government and most of the armed ethnic groups, have opened the possibility for future voluntary repatriation. However, few ethnic minority group members have opted to return so far.
Registered Myanmar refugees in Thailand face stark decisions. They can remain in one of the refugee camps along the Myanmar border, where they are relatively protected from arrest, but lack freedom to move or work, and are dependent on aid agencies, which have reduced funding since the ceasefires in Myanmar. Or, they can live and work outside the camps (in areas such as in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, and Bangkok, but typically without legal status of any kind, which makes them subject to exploitation, extortion, arrest and deportation.
All Rohingya at government shelters interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were not permitted to leave the facilities.
Adults and children are also arbitrarily detained in police lock-ups.
Mai M, an ethnic Mon girl from Myanmar without paperwork in Thailand, was arrested on the outskirts of Bangkok around December 2011, when she was 15 years old. She said she was taken to a police station with her mother, uncle, and cousin, and held for 15 days without seeing a judge or going to court before police took her and 30 other migrants to the Myanmar border by truck to be deported.
“While Thailand has made progress in enrolling migrant children in school, there are still significant gaps, leaving some children vulnerable to arrest. “Many families live far in the fields,” said Saw Kweh, a veteran community activist in Mae Sot, “and schools can’t come pick them up. There are costs for going to school and some families can’t afford it.”
Human Rights Watch suggested the Thai government enact legislation and policies to expeditiously end immigration detention of children consistent with the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. It also called on Thailand to sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.
It noted that while this report was completed prior to the coup, its findings remain relevant. The National Council for Peace and Order has instituted no major policy changes regarding detention of migrant children.
“Thailand’s policy of detaining migrants has remained consistent across previous governments, including military governments,” it said.