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RIGHTS-THAILAND: Fears of Mass Deportation of Migrants Rise

Sutthida Malikaew

BANGKOK, Feb 21 2010 (IPS) - Dao, a migrant worker from Burma, is struggling to make a decision that could affect not only her but her family as well. “There are many things to worry about,” sighed the Shan state native who works in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

Dao fears that she will have to go back to Burma to undergo the nationality verification process that Thailand requires of the nearly 1.4 million migrant workers who currently hold temporary work permits. The deadline is Feb. 28.

Nationality verification will legalise the status of migrant workers so they could enjoy the same rights as other foreigners who hold valid visas, according to Reudeerat Dejprayura of the Office of Foreign Workers’ Administration. Migrant workers who pass this screening, which involves providing biographical information to their home governments, will also get social security benefits.

But far from being a reassuring move, nationality verification – the Thai government’s latest attempt to manage the large number of migrants in the country – has triggered a firestorm of debate and drawn criticism from human rights advocates.

In contrast with the governments of Laos and Cambodia, which have agreed to have the verification process done in Thailand, Burma wants its citizens to go back to the military-ruled country to undergo the process. Many migrants from Burma left without papers and the government frowns on the large number of overseas migrants in neighbouring Thailand.

“I’m not sure what will happen to my parents (in Burma) if I present myself to the government,” Dao said. “They might face difficulties if the government searches our home. I’m not so sure whether after crossing the border for nationality verification, I will still have a chance to cross back (to Thailand) or not.”

There are but a few days left before the deadline, but Dao, like many migrant workers in this South-east Asian country, have not decided whether to go through the verification process. Like them too, she knows that those who miss the Feb. 28 deadline risk arrest and deportation.

In the last few weeks, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiya has come under growing pressure due to the verification process that critics say is loaded against migrant workers, and will mar the country’s human rights record.

Last month, a letter signed by over 30 domestic, regional and international rights groups and trade unions was submitted to Abhisit and the International Labour Organization asking for the extension of the nationality verification period and calling for an end to the threat of mass deportation of undocumented migrants.

Other activists called for an extension of this month’s deadline and a more honest look at how Thailand treats the migrant workers, mostly from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, who provide cheap labour in its factories, plantations, domestic work and the fishing industry.

“Mass deportations will serve only to harm both Thailand’s economy, which remains heavily reliant on migrant labour, as well as Thailand’s international reputation. But more importantly, sticking to this rigid deadline means after 28th February, migrants will fall victim to gross exploitation as they are forced underground at a politically sensitive time for Thailand,” argued Somchai Homlaor of the Human Rights and Development Foundation. “Systematic corruption will then prosper.”

Wilaiwan Saetia, chair of the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee, said at a seminar on migration this month that while the nationality verification process might have good intentions, it was not practical due to its short period compared to the number of people who have to undergo it.

While Thailand has some 2 million migrant workers, the verification process that the Thai Cabinet approved in January is targeted toward nearly 1.4 million of them who have temporary stay status. More than 127,000 other migrant workers are registered but do not have work papers and are thus ineligible for the verification process.

Thus far, 1.1 million of the 1.4 million eligible for verification are from Burma, and they make up the largest number of migrant workers in Thailand. Reports say some 400,000 migrant workers – including 200,000 from Burma – are thus far going through verification. There has been no feedback yet on the results so far, but the rules say the migrants must complete the verification process in two years.

In any case, Wilaiwan said she doubted whether the migrants who get proper working papers would really receive similar benefits as Thai workers. For example, she said, these migrant workers are supposed to have access to social security, “but not many employers will be happy to contribute to the social security fund for them.”

Likewise, migrant workers do not receive attendance bonuses, which are the extra pay that many locals get for working consistently without taking leave or getting sick. “Such inequality occurs because migrants have no negotiating power. They might be fired if they organise a group or bargain (with employers). It would not be easy for them to find a new job,” said Wilaiwan.

She said she remains unconvinced that nationality verification can rid the country of undocumented migrants, who will always be many employers’ preferred workers because they could give them lower wages and fewer benefits.

Ruedeerat conceded that some of the Burmese migrants who have applied for verification were asked sensitive questions such as ‘Do you support the ruling regime of Burma?’ and ‘Are you Rohingya?’ in reference to the refugees from Burma that have sought shelter in other Asian countries.

While such instances do take place, she said that not too many Burmese migrants have so far failed in the nationality verification procedure. “It’s about two cases as far as I know,” Ruedeerat said.

“Among the groups who may potentially be deported, there may be some who may be in need of international protection and should not be returned to the country of origin,” United Nations special rapporteur on migrants Jorge Bustamante said in a Feb. 18 statement. “Thailand should respect the principle of non-refoulement.”

To others, measures such as the verification process address migrant labour – whose mobility has become easier due to borders in the Mekong region that have opened up in the last two decades – from a narrow perspective of law enforcement and security.

But the factor that drives the mobility of people will continue to be the demand for cheap labour that many locals do not wish to do.

Lae Dilokwittayarat, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Labour and Employment, said the need for cheap labour in a capitalist economy would keep undocumented migrants in high demand. In export-oriented countries such as Thailand, cheap labour is needed to ensure lower costs so that investors can make more profits, he explained.

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