UK man’s harrowing survival at Thailand’s notorious IDC exposes the plight of Uyghur detainees. James Morton spent nearly 5 months in the infamous Immigration Detention Centre. This week, he shared his ordeal with the media. His story highlights the ongoing suffering of 43 Uyghurs imprisoned for fleeing persecution in China.

A UK man living and working illegally in January 2019 was picked up off the street. The 25-year-old, James Morton, afterwards spent five months in hell. This was the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in central Bangkok. Reported as perhaps Thailand’s toughest prison, it is the nightmare reality for foreigners in Thailand who end up on the wrong side of the Immigration Act and those who are detained pending deportation. In addition, it is home to 43 Uyghurs who were detained in 2019. These men, many of whom were separated from their wives and family in 2015, are being held for simply taking flight from persecution in China.

30-year-old James Morton’s story of his nightmare 5-month stay at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Bangkok was international news this week in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, the story highlights the ongoing scandal of 43 Uyghurs held for over ten years in prison conditions that are among the toughest in Thailand. (Source: Human Rights Watch, BBC and James Morton)

The issue was in the media spotlight last year when one of the group died from a lung infection at the facility.

This year, in May, Human Rights Watch Asia revealed that the United Nations is holding off on the issue under pressure from regional bodies who fear the wrath of Beijing and China.

A UK man, the subject of extensive international media coverage this week, detailed his road to redemption through his experiences in Thailand’s infamous Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in the Sathon district of central Bangkok.

The story certainly has a ring of truth and is essential reading for expats and regular Thai visitors.

Essentially, this is an administrative detention prison run by the Immigration Bureau, a powerful division of the Royal Thai Police.

Prison that no foreigner in Thailand wants to know. Certainly, it is where you go if you are being deported from Thailand. The process is rarely immediate

The IDC, or Suan Phlu Prison, is where all those deported from Thailand end up. At length, deportation from Thailand is not an immediate process.

It usually takes months. In the meantime, those unfortunate enough to be arrested or picked up end up here under conditions as bad, if not significantly worse, than many high-security Thai prisons.

James Morton, now an online physical trainer, was 25 in 2019.

Like many, he had come to Thailand on a tourist visa. After not wanting to go home but being too lazy to do things by the book, he worked illegally. 

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He found teaching work, a practice that was widespread twenty years ago but not so much now. Lessons have been learned, leaving many Western foreigners, in particular, with bitter memories.

UK man spoke to UK and US press about his nightmare at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in central Bangkok, an administrative detention hellhole

Speaking to the UK and US press this week, James explained that in January 2019, he was walking down a Thai street. Within seconds, he found himself surrounded by eight undercover policemen.

In short, his time in Thailand was up. Basically, he was placed under administrative detention. Morton was arrested for breach of the 1979 Immigration Act.

After that, he found himself an inmate at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC).

This is undoubtedly a hard time prison. Inmates who fail to follow instructions from prison guards are liable to corporal punishment. The prison hosts over 900 inmates at any one time and is notorious for sickness caused by overcrowding.

Certainly, James Morton confirmed this. He told media outlets that he ended up in a tiny cell among 180 other inmates.

However, he failed to mention that there is absolutely no privacy. A communal toilet bucket and inmates forced to take turns at sleeping immediately becomes your mode of living.

Morton did explain that he was only let out 2-3 hours a day. Additionally, there is a canteen at the facility for inmates and a tuck shop for those with money. However, the UK man underlined the mental torture of having no idea when you are to be released.

Unquestionably, there are inmates at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) who have simply been forgotten about.

Previously, key Western embassies were criticised for doing little to assist their nationals who end up incarcerated at the IDC. Some are better than others

Those seeking to be deported must pay their airfare. For instance, it must be a ticket purchased directly from the airline with a guaranteed seat.

In short, the airfare home is far more expensive than it would be if you were booking it online or for yourself. Additionally, inmates, unless some help is provided from the outside or in certain instances, by their embassies, have to locate someone to help.

Previously, many Western embassies were criticised for a lack of response to prisoners in trouble. At the same time, the problem continues with some embassies rendering better assistance than others.

In brief, certain missions have been forced to act due to the growing notoriety of the facility.

In November 2019, six months after Morton was released from Suan Phlu, another UK man, Kai Isaac, spoke of his harrowing story and experience within the jail. He had been there from May 17th until June the same year.

Mr Isaac recalled that there were people from 47 different countries in his cell. 

Death of a US citizen after only 4 days at the IDC in May 2019 reportedly investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). UK man was a witness

Significantly, he recalled the death of a US national in detention there in his arms on May 21st, 2019.

The deceased US man, aged 41, was Rickey McDonald. The UK man claimed he was picked on by foreign nationals because he was American. The abused man died after only 4 days at the facility.

His death was subsequently investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

This week, however, James Morgan recalled his release from the prison at the same time. In May 2019, he was put on a plane to the United Kingdom.

He said he would never forget the excitement and worry that it all might have been a trick. He did not believe he was going home until he was on the flight.

‘It was an amazing feeling to leave that prison, but I was not convinced until the plane took off,’ he said. ‘Once I arrived in the UK, I was elated to be back on English soil and see my family again.’

In the meantime, the UK man, now 30 years old, explained about his time at the IDC.

UK man living and working illegally in Thailand swooped off the street by eight undercover policemen and lodged at the Suan Phlu prison or detention centre

‘I was standing on the street corner and suddenly eight people were surrounding me and took me to prison. It was a nightmare; the conditions were so inhumane and horrendous. At first, it is very intimidating, but, over time, you live in this community of people. You never know when your end date would be – it was very frustrating. In my little cell, there were probably 180 people. Someone who stole five mobile phones would be in the same cell as someone who killed five people.’

At the same time, there is certainly no air conditioning in Thai detention facilities.

The UK man admitted that he had come to police attention by falling in with the wrong crowd in Thailand, particularly related to drink and drugs. He went on to explain that it was not long before he was doing the same back in the United Kingdom.

‘I started to get into some minor scrapes with the law when I got back, and I realised enough was enough, I noticed everyone around me could happily go to the pub for one or two drinks and go home, I would be there until 2 a.m. and carry on the party – I could go out for three days straight.’

Finally, James’ story has had a happy ending, although he still admits that avoiding going on the tear after a drink presents a challenge.

Reformed UK man still struggles with drink but he’s turned his life around as a coach. After getting married in August, he says his life is very different 

The former inmate from Thailand’s infamous Immigration Bureau prison in Bangkok decided to reform himself in September 2022. A month later, he found love with Faaizah. The pair married on the 15th of August, 2023.

‘I have a totally different life now, but I still have my moments where I contemplate and see if I could go to the pub for a few, but it is never a few. I am currently teaching fitness online from the basics to competition level,’ Mr Morton said. ‘Now I want to teach young men how to swerve a drink.’

It is not clear if James will ever return to Thailand. He still is serving a 5-year ban from the kingdom, which comes to an end later this year.

In the meantime, the suffering at the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) continues. In particular, the fate of 43 Uyghur men held there for over ten years.

Suffering at the IDC continues, in particular for 43 Uyghurs imprisoned there for over 10 years. Thai, UN and Chinese standoff sees the men trapped in hell

The men were part of a group of 350 Uyghurs taken into custody at that time in the South. At length, they had entered the country illegally.

They were a community of the persecuted group from China’s Xinjiang province. At this time, the United Nations has confirmed that China is committing crimes against humanity in that area against Uyghurs as well as other groups.

The group was on its way to Malaysia and headed for Turkey. In short, China put pressure on Thailand to repatriate all of the Uyghurs. In turn, Thailand sent 107 women and children to Turkey in 2015. After that, it controversially repatriated 109 Uyghur men to China. Afterwards, their fate is unknown.

The legal status of the remaining Uyghurs is flimsy. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees.

Six weeks after the stunning deportations of the Uyghurs in Thailand, a bomb exploded in Bangkok.

Thai security officials deny it was the work of Uyghur militants. However, they did arrest several Uyghur men for the crime.

Twenty died in the appalling explosion at a shrine popular with Chinese tourists in the centre of Bangkok.

Two accused men arrested in 2016 are still detained

The two accused, Adem Karadag and Yusufu Mieraili, were charged before a military court in Bangkok in 2016.

However, they are still thought to be at the IDC centre. They were moved there after attempting to escape another detention facility.

The issue of the detained Uyghurs was in the spotlight again in February 2023 when 49-year-old Aziz Abdullah, one of the detained Uyghurs, died. The death certificate read ‘lung infection.’

Weeks before his death, the detainee had been refused hospital treatment by a doctor. This came even though he was coughing blood.

Afterwards, when he collapsed, he was taken to hospital. Prisoners when taken for treatment are bound and shackled at all times.

Appalling death of 49 year old previously separated from his wife and family for eight years last brought home the human suffering that has gone on too long

In the aftermath of Mr. Abdullah’s death, the BBC covered the story. Polat Sayim, the Australia-based director of the Refugees Centre of the World Uyghur Congress spoke.

‘He was coughing and vomiting blood – he could not eat,’ she explained. ‘A doctor at the IDC examined him and said it was not a real sickness, that his condition was normal.’ Another activist who works with the Uyghur group also spoke.

‘It is even worse than regular Thai prisons,’ declared Chalida Tacharoensuk. She works with the People’s Empowerment Foundation.

Meanwhile, it emerged that in May, Thai officials were anxious to end the nightmare for the Uyghurs at the prison. Indeed they approached the United Nations to help find a resolution.

Scandal of United Nations kowtowing to China

Significantly, however, it has emerged that the United Nations has declined a request to take a more active role in the matter.

Ironically, this request is supposed to have come from Thai officials.

This drew the fire of veteran human rights activist Phil Robertson. The Deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch was reacting to press reports.

In turn, these suggest that officials with the United Nations in the Asia Pacific have been against proceeding too strongly on the matter. The fear is that it could lead to dissatisfaction from Beijing.

‘One of the shocking aspects of these memos is that Thailand was apparently pressing UNHCR to get more involved, and UNHCR baulked because they feared Beijing would get angry and reduce cooperation or donations to the agency,’ Phil Robertson told the New Humanitarian publication.

‘UNHCR must refocus on its mandate to protect refugees, and arguably no one in Thailand is more in need of that protection than these Uyghurs.’

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Further reading:

Tragic death of Uyghur Muslim in Immigration detention raises case of 50 men seeking asylum from China

Visitors warned of the deadly danger of working in Thailand without a proper visa and valid work permit

Crackdown on illegal foreigners sees American teacher arrested in class and Russian at his restaurant lunch

Immigration boss warns that a new crackdown on foreigners flouting Thai laws has begun

UK man claims FBI investigating the death of 41-year-old American held at Thai immigration jail in May