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This is not what Tom Tana’s stay in prison looked like (Supplied)
This is not what Tom Tana’s stay in prison looked like (Supplied)

SocietyApril 14, 2019

What it’s like to get stuck in a Thai jail

This is not what Tom Tana’s stay in prison looked like (Supplied)
This is not what Tom Tana’s stay in prison looked like (Supplied)

Beatings, unhygienic overcrowding, no ventilation and bad food: Welcome to one Kiwi’s experience of a prison in Thailand. This piece was originally published by Newshub

Thomas Tana had really messed up bad this time. Being led by guards to his cell at the Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, he didn’t know what to expect.

He sat down inside the filthy 4x10m room and guessed there had to be at least 120 other people there also; some, like him, who had failed to follow Thailand’s visa conditions as well as vagabonds accused of overstaying, smuggling drugs and murder.

Tana lay down and drew a harrowing comparison to the tropical paradise he had been exploring just days earlier as a newly-hired barman with free accommodation and alcohol, now issued a blanket to sleep on the cold squalor floor.

The 28-year-old had been sold a dream – a bar job that wasn’t going to make him a lot of money, but offered an easy-go lifestyle between golden sand and blue skies.

“Just party, have a good time and do a bit of work,” Tana recalls being told.

It sounded so easy, too easy, so Tana asked his new boss about the visa situation.

“You don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “Everyone does it.”

He accepted it was a “little bit dodgy” but had the reassurance he needed and left Perth, where he had been living for four years after growing up in Christchurch and living in Auckland for two years at 21.

Tana had only been working on Koh Phi Phi at a tourist-heavy, small bar in the city filled with beer pong tables and PlayStations for one week when it was raided on October 20 last year.

“They came in one night and they saw me working on the bar, taking money, giving drinks. That’s pretty much a real big no-no,” he told Newshub.

Thai officials took Tana, as well as an Englishman working at the same bar, into custody on October 20 and the pair were told they were going to be deported.

“I hadn’t even been back to New Zealand in four years or so, I was living in Australia. I didn’t really have anything there anymore, but what are you going to do?”

After confiscating their passports, they were allowed to return to their accommodation for one night before starting the deportation process where they would be escorted to Bangkok to journey home.

That was their understanding of it. Things started getting “messed up” when they got to Krabi via boat.

Officials took them from Koh Phi Phi Island and then held both men in the police station for the day.

Tana was seen by a New Zealand Embassy representative within two days of arriving who then initiated the process to get him home. Photo credit: Supplied.

When they got to Bangkok, Thai authorities took them from the airport and to the Immigration Detention Centre.

“It was fucking horrible. I was thinking they would just hold us there for a night before we get deported, then they took our photos,” Mr Tana recalls.

“You walk in; everyone is in their undies because it’s so friggin hot. They search you as well, take half of your shit off you and then leave you with just the basics.”

When he was issued an ID card, Tana realised he was stuck.

“We thought we were just getting deported and then next thing you know, we’re getting locked up in a cell with 120 other people that have been in there for two weeks, three weeks, a month, a couple years and longer.

“I was stressing out, thinking ‘what the hell do I do?’ I didn’t know what to do. You have no rights there.”

Otherwise confined to his room 24 hours a day, Tana says he and his cellmates were allowed out two times a week for one hour blocks into a courtyard area – a place he says resembles a basketball court inside a cage.

Westerners mostly made up the room he was in with a scattering of Australians amid Europeans and Englishmen.

They were locked up for selling or smuggling drugs, overstaying, working without a visa, and one guy, for murder.

“He stayed the night with us there before they transferred him back to England where he would serve his time.”

Meals would be served three times a day – rice alongside a “horrible stew”.

He claims while inside, two people died: “One guy got beaten to death by the guards and the other guy died of dehydration.”

A police spokesperson said that two men, a 72-year-old Vietnamese man and a 55-year-old man died in the early hours of Wednesday 24 October however their cause of death was not known. Newshub could not verify if the two men who police confirmed had died in the IDC were the same deaths Tana believed had occurred.

His time in the courtyard would be a crucial chance at letting an official know he was there.

“You have to get your ID card to the officers, they write your number down, you tell them you’re from NZ or whatever and then they contact your embassy.”

He says your embassy has to come and see you, and then they request for you to come down to be interviewed.

A consular adviser asks finds out the situation and asks what you want to do, who they should contact and if you have the money to pay for an airfare. From there they work to get your ticket to get home.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Newshub in a statement that the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok provided consular assistance to Tana.

Human Rights Watch says the IDC does not meet international standards. Photo credit: Supplied.

Thailand has not agreed to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, not recognising the state of refugees or asylum seekers who are instead treated as illegal immigrants and are locked up.

Human Rights Watch says that a number of detention centres in Thailand are heavily overcrowded, offer inadequate food, have poor ventilation and have limited to no medical services.

“The conditions at the Bangkok IDC are absolutely horrible,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director, Asia division.

“It’s very unhygienic and cramped, the detention cells are run by a ‘trustee’ system of detainees beating and abusing other detainees at the behest of guards, the food is minimal and far from nutritious, and children are still detained in the same cells as adults.”

Tana says he was lucky because a New Zealand embassy representative arrived within two days and told him he would be helped.

“Since Thailand refuses to pay for the deportation of people (other than those from neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia and Burma), some people are stuck there for years while they try to find someone to pay for their plane ticket home,” said Robertson.

Tana believes there were about 20 English people in his room struggling to be seen by an embassy representative, who only visited once a week.

“I don’t want to for one second complain about anything because I had to spend almost a couple weeks in there when another guy could be in there for life because he’s got no money and no family,” he says.

The barman, who was raised in Christchurch, moved to Thailand to work earning a small wage and be provided with free accommodation and free alcohol. Photo credit: Supplied.

It took 12 days before he was released on November 2 and sent back to New Zealand, after his case was fast-tracked thanks to a friend of his sister’s who was able to work with local police.

He now is urging others to not be baited by the idea of working internationally without a proper work permit and wants to help the people that have stayed for significant amounts of time at IDC.

“In the eyes of Thai immigration authorities, a refugee is just another migrant who has overstayed their visa or entered the country illegally, and that person is subject to indefinite detention until they agree to return to the country they fled from, or find a way to resettlement as a refugee in a third country,” said Robertson.

In the 2017/18 year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s offshore posts received 34,842 inquiries from travelling New Zealanders, and opened 2,253 new consular cases.

Tana says travelling without the proper visa or authorisation to do so is not worth it.

Fiona Connor is a senior digital journalist for Newshub.

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