Migration is not a crime

opinion November 23, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

By jailing 300 Uighurs in 2014, Thailand was caught in an international bind, eased somewhat by the escape last weekend of the few still remaining in custody

Thailand’s awful track record in dealing with asylum seekers and other refugees from overseas suggests that Tuesday’s government announcement – about formalising human rights as part of the national policy – is mere hypocrisy. Until the rights of undocumented foreigners are genuinely respected in this country, Thailand – particularly under military rule – cannot hope to be taken seriously.

Most recently we have seen six senior Immigration police officers in Songkhla kicked out of their posts (urgently transferred elsewhere, in official terminology) after 20 Uighur prisoners escaped from a detention centre. Without a more forthright response, though, the underlying issues will not be addressed and neither state practice nor Thailand’s reputation will improve.

In March 2014, more than 300 foreigners believed to be Uighurs were found to have entered the country without the proper documentation. No one seemed bothered by the reason they came – systematic abuse by the government of China, which promptly demanded their repatriation. Thailand promptly began complying.

The 300 were divided into three groups. The first group, numbering 172 people, was sent to Turkey, as per their wishes and proof of nationality. The second group of 109 was in July 2015 put on a plane bound for China – against their will – because they were accused there of violating the law. The incident drew international condemnation of the Thai authorities amid concerns that the Uighurs would be tortured upon their return to China.

The remaining prisoners got stuck in Thailand because their nationalities could not be verified, and they were held in custody, their captors saying only that they should be grateful that their bellies were filled with Thai rice. Some were subsequently resettled in third countries, leaving just 25 – old and young, men and women – with nowhere to go beyond the detention centre in Songkhla. Their relatives’ pleas that the prisoners had merely been fleeing repression in China and should be freed to travel on to Turkey went unheeded, as did appeals from the Thai Muslim community.

Sometime overnight Sunday or Monday, the captive Uighurs tunnelled through their cell wall and descended to the ground outside via blankets tied together. Five stayed behind, too old or ill to take the risk. The escape could not have been too difficult, but people familiar with the Uighurs’ predicament say they must have had inside help – or at least that the authorities turned a blind eye.

Wisut bin Lateh, director of the Southern Coordination Centre’s Sheikhul Islam Office (Chularajamontri, as it’s locally known), believes the dramatic escape takes the pressure off Thailand to deport the prisoners to China and allows the escapees a chance to reunite with relatives now living in third countries. It’s an attractively optimistic view, but it ignores the fact that Thailand must appear to the world as absurdly irresponsible. If the authorities did indeed condone or assist in the escape, why were these people arrested in the first place?

If respect for human rights actually is being incorporated into the national agenda, we have an example here of a good place to start. Whenever people arrive claiming to be refugees, they must be officially classified, fed and sheltered, and assisted in getting safely to where they wish to go. Jail is a place for people who commit crimes, not for strangers who ask for help.