Mattohti Mattursun, an ethnic Uyghur asylum seeker, passed away on April 21, 2023, due to liver failure at the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, where he had been detained for nine years for illegally entering the country on March 13, 2014. This tragic incident emphasises the urgency for the Thai government to terminate the practice of detaining asylum seekers and refugees indefinitely.
Uyghur Asylum Seekers in Thailand
As a Uyghur, Mattohti Mattursun faced persecution or other serious harm if returned to China. He was among several groups of Uyghurs who arrived in Thailand in 2014, seeking to travel to Malaysia and on to a third country. In 2015, the Thai government forcibly sent 109 Uyghur men and boys back to China, who were never heard from again. Another 170 Uyghur women and children were permitted to travel to Turkey, their original intended destination. Thailand has since detained the rest – about 50 men – in squalid immigration detention centres, where authorities treat them as illegal immigrants without any rights.
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Thai Immigration Detention Centres
Under Thai law, all migrants with irregular immigration status – including children, asylum seekers, and refugees recognized by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) – can be arrested and detained for illegal entry. Many immigration detention centres in Thailand are severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation, and lack access to medical service and other basic necessities. Detainees are restricted to small cells resembling cages, where they barely have room to sit, much less sleep. Children are frequently incarcerated with adults.
Conditions in Thailand’s immigration detention facilities have long been reported to fall far short of international standards, but the Thai government has not acted to address the serious problems. Human Rights Watch documented these shortcomings in a comprehensive report on immigration detention of children in 2014, and a report on the treatment of refugees, including the detention of urban refugees, in 2012.
Lack of Asylum Procedures
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has never enacted a law to recognize refugee status and set out procedures to assess asylum claims. Given its own lack of asylum procedures, the Thai government should respect UNHCR-issued persons-of-concern documents and not detain people who have pending claims for international protection. In addition to ending the detention of asylum seekers, Thailand should adopt alternatives to detention that are being used effectively in other countries – such as open reception centres and conditional release programs.
End to Indefinite Detention
Mattohti Mattursun’s death highlights the need for Thailand to end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees. Uyghurs, who predominantly live in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, face persecution and serious harm if returned to China. Since late 2016, the Chinese government has dramatically escalated repression in Xinjiang, and the UN has determined that the abuses against Uyghurs may constitute crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch’s Elaine Pearson stated that Thailand’s detention policy is inhumane and counterproductive, and the Thai government must adopt alternatives to detention and respect UNHCR-issued persons-of-concern documents.
The Thai government must end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees and uphold their human rights. This includes investigating Mattohti Mattursun’s death and adopting alternative approaches to detention. The international community should speak out against these abusive policies and push for meaningful reforms to protect the rights and dignity of all individuals seeking refuge in Thailand. It needs to be ensured that asylum seekers and refugees receive the protection and support they deserve.