The Thai Committee for Refugees said the release on bail of 96 members of Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya sect was the first such large-scale release of refugees who Thai authorities treat as illegal aliens.
The group negotiated the release with the state National Human Rights Commission and immigration officials.
The detainees, about a third of whom are children, were arrested last December even though all but two were granted official refugee status by the United Nations because they face persecution in their homeland, where they are considered non-Muslim.
“We are feeling very happy… like a bird in a cage when it comes out,” said Mahmoud, a freed 35-year-old refugee who declined to give his last name. “But we should not say about inside.”
The committee said conditions in the detention centre had been described as “overcrowded, inhumane and unhygienic,” with more than 150 people having to share cells designed for 30 to 40.
“In the women’s cell there were times when women had to stand so that some of them could sleep,” said Anoop Sukumaran, coordinator of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.
“The children were often sleeping next to the toilets, which were overflowing with faeces and urine. The conditions, to say the least, were horrific at some points.”
Thailand attracts thousands of refugees each year because it is easily accessible by land and sea, and borders several countries that are politically repressive and economically weaker.
It has generally been welcoming to refugees, especially when they have been fleeing warfare in neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar.
In recent years, however, it has taken a harder line toward groups such as the Hmong from Laos and Rohingya from Myanmar, whom they see as economic migrants.
Those released Monday will stay in Bangkok until they are resettled in a third country.