Conflicting Signals on Migrant Verification Deadline – The Irrawaddy

Speaking outside an International Labor Organisation (ILO) / Ministry of Labour meeting in Bangkok on Tuesday, Labour Minister Phaithoon Kaethong said that the Feb. 28 deadline for migrant workers to apply for the controversial Nationality Verification (NV) program stands.

Burmese migrant workers clean a fishing net as they sail out of the port of Mahachai near Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Reuters)

However, confusion about the deadline was exacerbated later in the day when M Thanit Numnoy, the director of Thailand’s Alien Workers Management Committee, said that the deadline for submitting nationality verification (NV) forms had been extended to March 31.

Thanit said that migrant workers will only have to express an intention in writing to enter the NV process by Feb. 28 to avoid deportation. They would then have until March 31 to complete and file the NV forms.

The Thai Foreign Ministry on Monday sought to reassure that the NV deadline would be discussed by the Thai government, in response to concerns raised by international organizations, NGOs and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission. The reassurance came in a letter to Human Rights Watch (HRW) from the Foreign Ministry, in response to the report “From the Tiger to the Crocodile— Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand” which was launched on Tuesday by HRW in Bangkok.

However, Minister Phaithoon said that the issue would not be discussed at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Despite claims by NGO advocates that NV information was not reaching Thailand’s estimated 2 to 3 migrant workers, Minister Phaithoon said he saw no reason why migrants cannot apply prior to Feb. 28. The majority of the migrant workers are Burmese.

Migrant worker advocates said a clear, decisive statement on what is going to happen is needed. Andy Hall, the director of the Migrant Justice Programme at the Human Rights and Development Foundation, said, “The Thai authorities are saying different things, adding to the confusion surrounding an already-flawed policy.”

According to activists at the ILO/MOL seminar, a number of government ministries and security agencies are discussing the issue and it is not clear who is driving policy making regarding migrant workers. Sunai Phasuk, a HRW Senior Researcher, said that he does not believe that tension between Prime Minister Abhisit and the Thai military has any impact on decisions in this area.

Thailand is seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and Sunai Phasuk said he believes that “the Foreign Ministry is telling the international community what it wants to hear” regarding NV policy.

On Feb. 18, a UN human rights expert on migrants, Jorge A. Bustamente, said that the Thailand’s NV process could lead to mass forced deportation and put Thailand in breach of fundamental human rights obligations.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of HRW Asia Division, said that no one disputes the Thai government’s need to have a migrant worker policy. The problem is that the Ministry of Labour “has not sought to address the nitty-gritty issues facing migrant workers in Thailand,” he said.

The newly released HRW report documents alleged abuses and challenges faced by migrant workers in Thailand, including killings, torture in detention, extortion, sexual abuse, trafficking and forced labor.

“Many police and officials treat migrant workers like walking ATMs” according to HRW. “They are just part of a system that robs and mistreats migrants wherever they turn.”

Now, the NV deadline “creates the risk of further abuses,” leaving migrants more vulnerable to extortion and traffickers, and should be postponed until it can be carried out in a fair manner, Robertson said.

Emphasizing the apparent contradictions in the NV system, Jackie Pollock, the director of the MAP Foundation said “next week the government is apparently going to start deporting people whose nationality they have not verified. Where are they going to send them to if they do not know what country they are from?”

According to statistics released on Tuesday at the ILO seminar, 140,000 migrant documents have been sent to Burma, with 25,000 Burmese migrants already completing NV. The NV issue is particularly acute for Burmese migrants, who make up the vast majority—perhaps 80 percent—of the migrant workers in Thailand. The NV process is targeted at nearly 1.4 million migrant workers who only have temporary-stay status.

Burmese migrant workers are often from ethnic minorities and sometimes are linked to ethnic or opposition political groups, according to Htoo Chit, the director of the Foundation for Education and Development. Burmese migrants in general do not want to give personal information to Burmese government officials, Htoo Chit said, in fear of jeopardizing the safety of family members still inside Burma.

Burmese economic migrants have left an economy that remains one of the poorest in Asia. Seventy percent of Burmese are subsistence farmers, and while the country has made billions of dollars from natural resource exports, little of this filters down to ordinary Burmese, who have at best intermittent electricity even as Burma supplies gas to neighboring countries to fuel power stations.

Pollock referred to recent strikes in Burma, protesting low wages and poor working conditions imposed by South Korean and Australian-run businesses, among others, and noted that the Burmese government responded by sending the military onto the streets.

“Burmese migrant workers come to Thailand seeking a better life than what they face at home,” she said. “All they ask for in Thailand is the minimum wage, which is not even a living wage,” she said.

Many other Burmese migrants have fled to Thailand from villages that have either been relocated or destroyed by the Burmese army, meaning that they do not have the necessary information to complete the NV process.

– Simon Roughneen interviews Sunai Phasuk on NV, migrant workers in Thailand and more, here –

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