Written by Chawaratt Chawarangkul IDC Southeast Asia Programme Manager

Since July 2021, IDC and HOST International have worked together to strengthen community-based alternatives to immigration detention for children and their families in Thailand through funding from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI). This project aims to shift focus from enforcement-focused models towards ATD that is centered on community-based protection and care for all children and their families, including women heads of households and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Currently, IDC and HOST International are working to collate and strengthen the evidence-base for these new ATD models within the Thai context. We will convene the Thai government and civil society networks such as the Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons to share and discuss our findings, and encourage further coordination on expanding the use of community and rights-based, gender responsive ATD. These new models will provide greater respect for the rights of children and their families released under the ATD MOU.

From August to November 2021, HOST International and IDC commissioned a formal independent evaluation of the HOST Community-based Case Management Pilot Program, which began in December 2018 in response to the release of children and their families from immigration detention under the ATD-MOU of the Thai government. Based on the independent evaluation, we found that the majority of parents and children experienced stress in detention, and felt emotional relief once living in a community setting. They emphasised that they gained confidence in living and moving around the neighborhood without fear of being arrested. It is evident that living outside of detention allows them to reclaim their rights and dignity. For the children who attend school, there has been a very positive impact, and they are supported to integrate into Thai community and culture. Parents, as well as some of the children, have had the opportunity to strengthen life skills through HOST’s activities such as planting vegetables. While there are many benefits, there are also some challenges. For example, the majority of mothers, as well as social workers, have stated that women experience difficulties transitioning from the detention centre to living in a community. During the initial stages, likely due to the ongoing effects of detention, the majority of mothers felt insecure, lacked confidence, and relied on others while caring for their children alone. One of the key recommendations following this program evaluation is that: HOST could establish a support group so that women can help and support one another, particularly those who have recently been released from detention and have settled in the community.

In parallel, we have documented the latest promising practices on community and rights-based, gender responsive ATD models globally; this research has specifically focused on models that could be applied in Thailand to support the Thai government and ATD-MOU implementing partners in better responding to children and their families released from, or at risk of immigration detention.  For example, we have identified a range of mechanisms by which governments prohibit the immigration detention of children and their families in law, policy and practice. This includes ensuring that refugee, asylum seeking and migrant children are mainstreamed into national child protection systems, and have the same access to rights as other children in the country, such as education, healthcare and accommodation. There are also important mechanisms to support unaccompanied children, such as the appointment of guardians, family-based care, and appropriate age determination processes. Through our research, we have documented promising examples from a number of countries, including Ireland, Sweden, Italy, UK and the Netherlands. A clear finding from our research has been that there is a gap in gender-responsive approaches and analysis in the development and implementation of community-based ATD. This gap needs to be filled. 

IDC and HOST International are now developing ATD Practice Guidelines for the Thai government and NGOs to use in developing and implementing community and rights-based, gender responsive ATD for urban refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand. Based on the outcomes of these tools, we will convene a workshop in February 2022 to introduce the ATD Practice Guidelines and facilitate a program visit for social workers from the Thai government and key ATD implementing partners in Thailand. Through this, we hope to increase understanding of the practicalities of community and rights based, gender responsive ATD in the Thai urban refugee context and collectively strengthen the ATD policy and practices in Thailand.