Governments in Southeast Asia Detain Thousands in Abusive Drug Detention Centers
A new report entitled Detention as treatment: detention of methamphetamine users in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand documents the arbitrary detention of thousands of drug users, mostly young people, in controversial detention centers in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. While the detention is supposedly for treatment, children and adults are held in boot camp-like centers where they do not receive adequate medical care and are subjected to routine physical and sexual abuse.
The report, released by the Nossal Institute for Global Health and the Open Society Institute, examines practices in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, which today have eight, 14, and 84 detention centers, respectively. The number of these centers has more than tripled in the past decade.
Throughout the region, compulsory detention is a common response to the growth of methamphetamine use, which has been increasingly reported in Southeast Asia over the past decade. From 2001 to 2008, Laos received more than one million dollars from the United States, Japan, and other countries to build centers to detain and “treat” methamphetamine users.
“Government policies recognize that drug addiction is a public health problem, but most people are never seen by a health professional before being locked away in these centers where they are often abused by military and police under the guise of drug treatment,” said Dr. Nick Thomson, author of the report. “The governments of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos should immediately make plans to close these centers, as they are harmful to public health and human rights.”
Unlike prisoners, most drug users interned in these facilities never appear before a judge and have no right of appeal. Once inside centers—where they may be detained for as long as five years—individuals have no access to medicines, or in some cases, even to adequate food. Virtually 100 percent of those interned in detention centers return to drug use when they get out.
Rather than helping people improve their health, conditions in the detention centers are frequently harmful to individual and public health. Detainees are at greater risk of contracting infectious diseases, including HIV, TB, and hepatitis.
The report’s authors interviewed government and nongovernmental officials and 30 former detainees who confirmed widespread abuse in the centers.
“The supervisors—people that have been in the center as residents a long time—control the sleeping room and often force the younger boys to have sex with them. I saw the supervisors rape boys between the ages of 10 and 14,” said a 24-year-old male recently released from the Somsagna Drug Rehabilitation Center in Laos.
“I saw three staff beat a guy unconscious; they then dragged him away to another room,” said one former detainee, a 19-year-old male in Cambodia.
Throughout the region, these centers are operated by military personnel or police officers. Most centers do not have any health professionals on staff. The individuals detained in these centers are not given health screenings prior to entering or upon leaving the centers, despite the fact that drug users and prisoners often have very serious health concerns.
“We see the doctor about once every couple of weeks and the nurse sometimes one morning a month, and otherwise there is no health staff anywhere,” said an official with a police-run treatment center in Udon Thani, Thailand.
“Drug treatment consisted of a daily boot-camp regimen. There was no education about drugs,” said a 22-year-old former detainee from Cambodia.
The report calls on the United Nations and donor countries like the United States to immediately cease any financial support for maintaining or building new detention centers. It further calls on the governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to release those currently detained, and devise strategies to permanently close drug detention centers.