Reuniting families separated by detention

Seeing divided families is a painful sight and this is often the case in immigration detention centres where women and men are held in separate detention cells. For 25 years, the Jesuits have been working closely with the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok to facilitate the release of detainees and help them return to a life of dignity and freedom with their families. Two years ago, Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific handed over responsibility for this work to the Jesuit Foundation – Prison Ministry Thailand.

“Most of the families in the IDC are asylum seekers who have travelled out of their home countries as a unit for refuge,” said Director Vilaiwan (Kep) Phokthavi, sharing that one of the ways the prison ministry has been bringing these families together is by arranging monthly family days. “The family days provide a valuable opportunity for families to meet each other, feel emotional encouragement and enjoy recreation together,” she said.

Family at the Immigration Detention Centre BangkokThe prison ministry has also been able to arrange for other family members to visit their loved ones detained in the IDC. In January, two girls, aged five and six, were able to meet their mother. Likewise, in March, the group was able to help two Pakistani detainees see their families again. In May, the prison ministry arranged for a Sri Lankan detainee to meet his wife and two sons, a Pakistani detainee to see his wife and five children, and a Palestinian detainee to get together with his father, mother, brother and sister.

For children, the group organises activities such as on Children’s Day, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration. “It was good for the children to have some activities with other children,” said Kep.

In the first six months of this year, the prison ministry’s IDC programme was able to assist 161 detainees, 138 male and 23 female from 24 countries, with administrative arrangements for their release from the IDC. The largest group consisted of 60 Nigerians. Kep said that the arrangements the group made included approaching embassies and consulates for travel documents, liaising with airlines, and contacting families or friends for financial support.,.

Immigration Detention Centre BangkokIn addition, 38 detainees, amongst them four vulnerable individuals, were provided with financial assistance to travel home. Vulnerable individuals are defined as persons by one of the following: living with disability, illness, elderly or children under 18 years of age.  The programme shouldered about 80 percent of the total repatriation costs, although Kep pointed out that, “As much as possible, co-financing was sought from the detainees, embassies, consulates or other organisations.”

Besides the release of detainees, another priority is ensuring the detainees’ physical and mental well-being. Supplementary food, such as bread donated by hotels and bakeries, and Muslim and Indian food given by donors, are distributed to the detainees. The sick and elderly are also given cookies and milk. In addition, they set up a medical clinic within the IDC with a full-time nurse who visits the detainees in their cells every month and a volunteer doctor who visits twice a week. Those who require special attention are allowed to stay in the clinic or referred to the hospital when necessary. “We found one tuberculosis patient and one HIV case,” Kep said.

As of June 2016, there are close to 1,000 detainees in the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok. Many of them are asylum seekers and migrant workers, some have been arrested for overstaying, and a few are foreign prisoners who have been released from criminal prisons and are awaiting deportation.

Related story: Tales from the Bangkok Immigration Detention Centre