Thailand has released nearly 100 refugees of the Ahmadiyah Muslim minority after six months in detention. The group of religious minorities, including women and children, fled persecution in Pakistan only to be arrested in Bangkok. Their release is the biggest-ever secured by a Thai refugee activist group.
The 96 refugees were jubilant after Thai immigration police released them from a Bangkok detention center.
“We are so happy, Kingdom of Thailand. We are, no have words what we say, we only say thank you very much,” said Rana Haroon Siddique, one of the men released on bail.
Siddique and others were freed after the Thai Committee for Refugees worked with Ahmadiyah Muslim groups and other activists to help pay more than $150,000 in bail money.
The Ahmadiyah practitioners fled to Thailand from Pakistan, where they are persecuted as heretics to Islam. Earlier this year, police in Bangkok arrested the 96 during several immigration raids from December to February.
Those in detention included women and more than 30 children, as well as a pregnant woman who gave birth in detention. Refugee rights groups said they were being held in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions with more than 150 people sharing cells meant for a maximum of 40 people.
The U.N. Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, welcomed their release. Spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said they should not have been arrested in the first place.
“We welcome anyone getting out of detention,"she said. An immigration detention center is no place for any person, particularly elderly people, sick people, babies, children. We welcome any step that gets refugees out of detention. We do not think refugees should be locked up simply for being refugees in the first place.”
McKinsey says they worked with the detained group to fast-track their applications. She says all but two now have been recognized as refugees by the United Nations.
Thailand does not recognize refugees, making everyone without proper documentation subject to arrest and prosecution.
Police Lieutenant General Wiboon Bangthamai is commissioner of the immigration bureau. While he gave no indication authorities are planning to relax their stringent immigration policy, he indicated the dialogue with activists could help speed up the processing of refugees in detention.
He says, according to the law, if they enter Thailand illegally they must be arrested, but he says Thai authorities will continue to work with human-rights organizations on the issue.
While they are on bail, the Ahmadiyah are being housed in Bangkok until they are resettled to a third country.