“IDC” is a feared set of initials among asylum seekers in Thailand. It stands for Immigration Detention Center and not a few asylum seekers have endured time there for any where from months to years. The reason is that while they wait the average 5 to 8 years for the UN to process their cases, the vast majority are unable to maintain visas to stay legally in Thailand, and are so subject to arrest and detention for visa overstay.
IDC appears to be at the center of Thailand’s refugee policy. We’ve mentioned many times that asylum seekers are not welcome in Thailand, as they are not in virtually every country of the world, and that Thailand is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. While most signatories tend to ignore the rules of the Convention and Protocol, Thailand doesn’t even have to make a show of compliance because they didn’t sign it. Asylum seekers work through the UN system, but they must avoid the Thai government like the plague.
Everything seems to almost revolve around IDC. As a baseline, there isn’t much recognition of the asylum seekers’ plight on the part of the government. They do a few things. They won’t forcibly deport someone who is seeking asylum back to their home country. They sometimes open bail for IDC detainees who have successfully acquired refugee status after a long and arduous process with the UN. After the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok in August 2015 they closed all new bails until a few were granted to women with children in 2020. In the fall of 2018 they cancelled bail for all the refugees I know that had it and they were forced to return to IDC. One friend is still in there since that time and her health is deteriorating.
So in the back of most asylum seekers’ heads it’s looming there: IDC. Asylum seekers move in and out of various status of relationship to it. A very few number of asylum seekers have a visa and are in Thailand legally. In the back of their minds IDC is still there because it’s hard to maintain a visa. So one of my asylum seeking friends was working as a teacher and had paperwork problems and missed getting her work visa renewed by just one day. Guess where she ended up? Yes, IDC. There is another class, those that got bail and are out living free, but only for the mean time. And that feels great for them. They must report to IDC twice a month, but other than that they are ‘free’. Their bail paper is like a passport for them. But still, in the back of their minds is the fact that their bail could be ended at any time without notice on the whim of the authorities and they must go back inside. I mentioned a close friend had that happen to her and she is still in IDC since 2 years ago. and she has eye problems, heart problems, numbness problems.
Another class are those that have never been caught. I think they must stress the most out of those . They live in constant fear that they will be caught and so they are always taking precautions. They have to keep their ears constantly to the ground for any kind of news. News does get around fast. There is a unique and true community that has built up around trying to stay safe. There is a shared sense of struggle that unites the asylum seekers. That part is a beautiful thing to see. Often many families live in the same condo and it is beautiful to see how they share and cooperate between themselves. From that standpoint, IDC looming in the background has brought them together.
People sharing and caring for each other is the way life ought to be. I am not saying that the looming shadow of IDC in their lives is a good thing. But it is part of the mix that has brought people together in a unique way. Circumstances have brought them close. They must share food. They share money. Perhaps as often or more than getting caught in the grip of IDC, they are detained by local police who will let them go for a bribe. Then everyone must pull together to get the money to pay the police and free their brethren. Often they live in the same condo and so their lives spill together into the hallways and from one room to another. There they eat together, pray together, sing together, study together, the ladies will wax each other or fix each other’s hair and eyebrows, together they plan their asylum interviews and discuss ways to expedite getting to a third country. And if there is a looming threat from immigration they all pull together to get through it. Sometimes they leave their condos for some days to stay with friends until things die down. Their radar is always up and they are always aware when they see people coming to take pictures of their building, in either marked or unmarked vehicles. But as vigilant as they are they still can get surprised and that is when their streak of not getting caught ends.
Which leads to the final class: those that are inside of IDC. IDC is a lesson in patience. My good friend ended up in IDC in December 2015 and at the beginning we had great hopes he could get out. Bail was closed but we always had reason to believe it would open. First we thought it would open in two weeks, but no. Then in a month, but no. Two months, still no. After four months he went back to his home country because his father had a heart attack and he was very worried for him. He is barely surviving there. We are trying to maintain a network to support each other but lack resources. Another friend arrested at the same time had the good and bad fortune of getting Canadian sponsorship. Good because it meant he would achieve his goal of resettlement to a third country. But bad because it meant he would be stuck in IDC until resettlement, which unfortunately took three years. Three years of his life was spent in a room of about 10 by 20 meters, with a varying population at times reaching 200 men. So densely packed were they that not everyone could sleep at the same time. It’s very hard to stay healthy in that environment. Infections of different types spread easily. Skin problems are common. Obviously colds and flus as well. People are smoking inside there too which is bad for the air. The washroom facilities are sorely lacking and sometimes no water. I don’t know how many people died when he was in there but I do remember the dramatic case of one man who complained of chest pains and his case was not taken seriously and he died there in his room. There were times that he thought of returning to his home country but he hung in there to the end. Now he is in Canada with the rest of his family.
It’s hard to know what to think about IDC. At times it seems so inhuman. But at the same time when you visit the people inside they speak of hope. They speak of faith. Something happens to a person when they cannot depend on any earthly power for help or justice.. They appeal to a higher power. They come to depend on God. I wouldn’t wish their experience on anyone but at the same time I am hopeful that their experience will break down the barriers to future success in their lives. In theory, going through the hard experiences of IDC should make every day life easier. In theory, these people should be able to see greater potential in everyday opportunities and they should seem easier for them. In theory simple freedoms must be more palpable for them. I am seeing evidence that this is the case, and the average asylum seeker has definitely developed a set of tools for survival that the average person has not, and that bodes well for their future.