Ahmadiyya Refugees Released from Thai Detention

An Ahmadiyya refugee from Pakistan cries as she leaves a detention center with her family in Bangkok on June 6.

"We are so happy this day to be released," said Haraan Sidique, boarding a bus at Bangkok's Suan Plu Immigration Detention Center (IDC) on Monday morning after spending almost seven months at a refugee prison in central Bangkok.

Sidique is one of 96 Ahmadiyya refugees from Pakistan who have been released from detention by Thai authorities, a landmark development in a country that does not formally recognize refugees despite the fact that it is currently coming to the end of its tenure as president of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The released Ahmadiyya are members of a minority Muslim group that is oppressed in Pakistan, where they are not recognized as Muslims and are often victims of sectarian violence.

As women carried infants and ushered older children toward the waiting buses, males in the group thanked Thai officials and police at the IDC, all clearly relieved at being released. Watching as the group made its way from the jail across a heavily policed courtyard, Dr. Iftikhar Ahmad Ayaz, a U.K.-based Ahmadiyya representative, reminded reporters of what he described as "intense and severe persecution" of Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, where he says they "are denied their basic civil and political rights."

Anti-Ahmadiyya violence is not confined to Pakistan, and in recent months there have been sectarian attacks on Ahmadiyya in parts of Indonesia. In a letter sent to Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa in April, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay said, "I have been particularly disturbed by the widespread violence and discrimination reported against the Ahmadiyya community."

According to Amara Pongsapitch, chair of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), most of the group was arrested in Thailand in December 2010 after fleeing Pakistan. "They have been freed on bail at 50,000 baht per person," she said, outlining the terms of the release. The NHRC took up the case after lobbying by Thai civil society groups, who provided the bail for the Ahmadiyya and will support their stay in Bangkok prior to resettlement, possibly in the United States.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Kristin Kneedler said on Tuesday morning that it is U.S. policy to accept UNCHR referrals for resettlement, but added that she could not comment on specific cases due to confidentiality issues. Praising the proactive role played by Thai NGOs in the process, James Lynch, the U.N. refugee agency representative for Thailand, said, "We continue to seek the understanding of the Thai government for the protection needs of refugees and asylum seekers."

Similarly welcoming the release, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, cautioned, "The Thai government should be developing a law to recognize refugees so that they are not simply lumped in with undocumented migrants, as is currently the case. That law should be in line with international standards set out in the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which we call on the Thai government to immediately ratify as well."

As Thailand does not have any refugee law, asylum seekers and refugees in Thailand are vulnerable to arrest and detention in rough conditions such as Suan Plu, which is located near the main banking and financial district of Bangkok.

Veerawait Tianchainan is executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees, which played a central role in the release of the detained Ahmadiyya. Veerawait described conditions in Suan Plu as "overcrowded," with 130 people sometimes sharing a cell designed for no more than 40.

"The Ahmadiyya told me that some of them had to stand up at night, to allow others to sleep, as there was not enough room for everyone to lie down," he said. One of the Ahmadiyya women gave birth while detained at Suan Plu IDC, and the group included 34 children under the age of 13.

Since 2005, more than 70,000 refugees have passed through Thailand prior to resettlement in third countries, with most of those eventually resettled originating from Burma. There are around 140,000 Burmese refugees in nine camps in the north of the country, though the Thai government has said it hopes to repatriate the Burmese refugees, most of whom are from Burma's ethnic minority borderlands, sometime in the future.

Perhaps the worst-affected Burmese ethnic minority is the Rohingya, a Muslim community estimated at 1 million people and living mostly in the Arakan state in the west of the country.

A citizenship law imposed by the Burmese military dictatorship in 1982 left the Rohingya stateless under national and international law, and according to the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network, the Rohingya "face severe restrictions of movement, even for traveling between villages; couples must obtain official permission to marry and they are disproportionately subject to forced labor, informal taxes and arbitrary detention."

Such onerous conditions have prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee overseas in recent decades to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere, where they run a legal gauntlet compounded by their lack of citizenship in Burma, which means they travel without documentation, often to countries that do not have a refugee law.

There are 44 Rohingya currently detained at Suan Plu, as well as others held elsewhere in Thailand, some of whom have languished inside the detention centers for more than two years. Veerawit said the Thai Committee for Refugees and other groups have been advocating for the release of detained Rohingya and are in discussions with the Thai authorities about the issue.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy:

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