A Thai police operation aimed at nabbing visa overstayers and undocumented migrants has raised concerns about racial profiling by authorities, as well as fears for asylum-seekers at risk of getting caught in its dragnet.
Launched one year ago, the aptly-named “X-Ray Outlaw Foreigner” operation has resulted in over 1,000 people arrested in the Southeast Asian country in the last few weeks, mostly for abusing their visa, the Agence France-Press reported.
A large chunk of those arrested for petty crimes and swindling lonely locals out of their savings, better known as “romance scamming,” have come from neighboring nations. However, racial overtones of the Thai police campaign has critics worried about profiling based on skin tone.
“Our job is to classify who are the good dark-skinned people and who are the ones likely to commit crimes,” said Surachate Hakparn, the immigration bureau chief who noted that the so-called “romance scammers” tend to be from Sudan and Nigeria.
“The suspicious targets are the dark-skinned people,” another bureau official said. “First, we search their bodies, then we search their passports.”
Recounting a late-night crackdown in Bangkok’s Nana district, the AFP noted how officers stopped several “suspects,” including three people from Mali who they drug tested on the spot. The news agency reported that about 30 individuals, about half of whom were Black, were in custody by the end of the night. Only one suspect was white; a Frenchman caught smoking pot.
This discriminatory policing has sparked fears among human rights group who warned that refugees and asylum seekers traveling through Bangkok on their way to a third country for resettlement could get caught up in “Operation X-Ray.” Estimates by the nonprofit Fortify Rights showed there are nearly 100 adults and 30 children who fit this description and lack legal protections.
“Thailand’s immigration crackdown has swept up refugees and asylum seekers, sent young children into horrid, prison-like conditions and appears to have clear aspects of racial profiling against South Asians and Africans,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
The agency reported that last month, 70 Pakistani Christians were detained by police on charges of unlawful entry and overstay, although they were assumed to be in transit and fleeing religious persecution in their home country. Syrian and Somali migrants are at risk of the same fate.
Thai police have been unapologetic about their operation, however.
“In order to clean house, we need to bring in the good people and deport the bad people so that the country will have sustained stability,” Hakparn said.