Supporting Girls and Women in a Bangkok Immigration Detention Center

PicStitch of volunteers receiving and organizing bras Piles of boxes

Special Guest Blog and Perspective from our I Support the Girls: Thailand Affiliate: Yasmina Rais El Fenni

Bangkok is a honeymoon destination, a spring break vacation for some, or maybe your home address, depending on where you are in the world. But going off the beaten path, my visit to the Suan Phlu Bangkok Immigration Detention Center was beyond anything I pictured or imagined. Why would you go there? And what is it like? I am charged to share my story.

volunteers organizing piles of bras more boxes to be donated, about 100

The office where you must register to visit the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center is rigid, with limited hours to sign in and even less to visit.  It’s crowded and overwhelming. The images and stories which you take away with you are much more complex, heartbreaking, and filled with despair.

Detainees include refugees from across the globe, such as Cambodia and Pakistan, and increasing numbers from Syria. Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) are there brokering re-settlement for recognized asylum seekers.

Once inside, you place any items you are taking in into a plastic basket. Then you pass through a metal detector and be frisked. The detainees will line up along the other side of the fence and guards will pass through the middle. One can exchange notes with detainees if you call attention to the guards. When there are about 100 people yelling across the fence, hearing becomes almost impossible. It isn’t picking up a phone to talk across a booth like an episode of Law and Order.

What consists of being locked up? According to the detainees, the meals are a weak soup and rice. It’s monotonous, so any donated food is appreciated. There is a store on the premises to buy items like tea and coffee (at inflated prices). Naturally, authorities tend to restrict visitors bringing those items. That’s where I Support the Girls comes in. Hygiene products are not available or if they are, they are very expensive. As a large majority of the detainees were arrested in raids and had no time to collect any possessions. They come in solely with the clothes on their backs. An extra bra allows them to wash the one they have on. On all occasions, women cried when they received the bras, hygiene products and toiletries. Each expressed what a massive improvement they would make in each of their lives.

The Roots of ISTG: Thailand, and the Flourishing Future

When I first started the ISTG Thailand chapter, I was relatively new to Bangkok. I didn’t really know where to start in terms of reaching out to shelters or grassroots organizations. In fact, the language was the biggest issue. I got nowhere when searching online with my limited vocabulary. Frustrated, I turned to some United Nations (UN) colleagues for some advice. I linked up with UNHCR and IOm. Both work with the International Detention Center (IDC) as well as resettlement programmes and expressed their need for bras. UNHCR was extremely active and involved, so the first batch of over 800 bras and hygiene products were delivered to the refugees and received with great excitement.

Other organizations which expressed great interest in ISTG’s efforts was Nightlight, which assists sex trafficked workers who were brought to Thailand. Nightlight helps them in returning home, under their consent, that they will not return to prostitution. The women are taught skills such as sewing and hairdressing to help gain employment on their return. Additionally, Mercy Center works with children and orphans in slums across Bangkok, and they have a special center for women who have been afflicted with violence. Mercy Center provides shelter and consultations, and were in desperate need of bras and hygiene products. Both organizations received about 2,000 bras and hygiene products from ISTG: Thailand.

The outreach of people willing to help in any shape or form has made ISTG Thailand an upcoming success story with over 45,000 bras donated and distributed across the country in less than a week! Being exposed to these women has altered my perspective entirely. You realize these women are in need for some reason or other through a twist of fate.  Some were once lawyers or engineers and are now walking the streets of Bangkok. Others are locked behind bars, unexposed to natural light for years on end. It was overwhelming to see their faces lit up in the recognition that there is hope in humanity.

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