Migrants face dangerous journey as Napyidaw contemplates longer-term ‘Filipino-style’ overseas worker strategy

BANGKOK – Tens of thousands of Burmese migrants who fled Thailand’s floods are in danger of trafficking and extortion unless both Thailand and Burma’s Governments come up with a plan to facilitate a safe return, say activists.

From September-November 2011, almost 100,000 Burmese migrant workers returned to their homeland via Mae Sot, a town on the Thailand-Burma border that serves as the main land connection between the two countries. However tens of thousands of these migrants were deported from Thailand after homes and workplaces were flooded in the recent disaster, which left over 600 people dead in Thailand.

According to data from the Mae Sot immigration office, 39,841 of the returnees held temporary passports – meaning that they could legally cross back to Burma and can subsequently return to Thailand to resume work at their flooded employment locations.

However, the majority of those fleeing Thailand for Burma during the floods – given as 58,369 at time of writing – did not have passports. Some of this cohort likely likely held work permits, which only allow the holder to remain in the province of his/her employment.

By attempting to cross back to Burma via Mae Sot, the workers invalidated their permit and therefore could be expelled from Thailand.

Migrant rights groups say that they lobbied the Thailand Government to implement a temporary amnesty for undocumented migrant flood victims, or those lacking passports, who sought to return home. However, tens of thousands of Burmese flood victims were deported amid numerous allegations of extortion and trafficking along the Mae Sot border area. Various recent news reports feature Burmese migrants saying they were forced to pay additional fees to cross back to Burma, often to Burmese militias controlling checkpoints on the Burmese side.

Burmese migrants make up an estimated 5-10% of Thailand’s labour force and number between 2 and 3 million. Of these, around 1.5 million have registered to work in Thailand.

However, for those migrants who were deported or invalidated their permits, trying to return to Thailand to resume employment will be challenging. According to Claudio Natali of the International Organisation Migration (IOM), “there is a gap in the system now, effectively, until there is some process in place for those who went back to Burma but do not have passports to come back”.

The alternative, says Andy Hall, a migrant rights analyst at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, is “for people to try to smuggle themselves back into Thailand”.

That in turn renders people trying to re-enter Thailand as vulnerable to extortion and trafficking, and long-running threat to migrant workers in Thailand. According to a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable from the Bangkok embassy, the Thailand government “recognizes the seriousness of the (trafficking) problem.” Thailand is currently on the US State Department’s human trafficking watch list, still a notch better than Burma, which the same list deems to be among the countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

Hall recently visited Burmese capital Naypyidaw, where he discussed the situation facing Burmese living in Thailand with Burmese officials. He said that “the Myanmar authorities insisted to me during my visit that the protection of migrant workers is now a key policy for their government, both as a development strategy but also as a poverty reduction strategy.”

With Burma’s economy floundering, millions of Burmese live abroad, with remittances sent home a vital source of income for family living in Burma. The Burmese Government is said to envisage a longer-term Philippines-style policy where emigration is supported as a means of compensating for a stagnant or underperforming domestic economy. A tenth of Filipinos live overseas, and money that “OFWs” (overseas Filipino workers) remit makes up approximately the same percentage of the country’s economy.

U Chit Shein, Director-General of the Dept of Labour based in Naypyidaw, said in a telephone interview that “the Myanmar Government is very interested in this issue and as per President Thein Sein’s speech on 30 March 2011, will work to ensure worker rights both in Myanmar and abroad”.

For now, the Thailand and Burmese authorities are discussing a joint plan – to come into effect on January 1 20102 – to enable those Burmese who were deported to return to their jobs in Thailand, without having to run the notorious broker and trafficking gauntlet along the two countries’ common border.

Jackie Pollock, Director of the MAP Foundation, an organisation that assists Burmese workers in Thailand, said that there needs to be some temporary system implemented on the border to enable migrants who lack passports to cross back to Thailand, and to facilitate employers and business owners who want to ‘re-hire’ Burmese migrants who fled the flooding. “This was done after the 2004 tsunami, so something similar should be possible this time around”, she added.

But whether or not Burmese migrants will be made aware of any joint plan to facilitate their safe return to Thailand remains unclear, with officials seen as slow to disseminate information. According to Claudia Natali, “the majority of migrants do not hear about such policy developments, and if they do, it is long after implementation”.

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