The Thai Government recently reiterated its policy to formalise the status of around 2 million migrants from Burma working here. Nationality verification (NV) is apparently required because these migrants left Burma without permission and entered Thailand “illegally”.
What with an abundance of brokers assisting them, and the fact that wide swathes of the Thai economy remain reliant on them, it’s easy to get in at a cost. Once registered to work “legally” in the most dangerous jobs Thailand has to offer, migrants’ status remains “illegal, pending deportation”. Refused work accident compensation, the right to ride motorbikes and travel outside a province of registration, migrants live in a grey hole where insecurity and exploitation thrives.
So something apparently needed to be done to solve this unjust situation. NV means that migrants become both “Burmese” and “legal” at the same time. They also receive a “temporary” passport, which entitles them to benefits in Thailand they were previously denied.
Since NV involves working with the junta, difficulties were always going to arise. While Cambodia and Laos sent diplomats to complete NV for their workers in Thailand, Burma insisted its workers return home to complete the process. NV for Burmese workers ground to a halt – only to reawaken last year when Thailand allowed the process to be completed on Burmese soil.
Many observers, including political groups engaged in a sixty-year political struggle against the junta, sensed NV was not a magic solution to Thailand’s irregular migration challenges. Instead, it seemed a tad fishy. So is NV a win-win process? If not, the lives of millions of migrants are potentially at stake.
Migrants currently send their biographical information to the Burmese authorities and then travel to Burma to complete NV. Since August, six NV centres have become operational on both sides of three main Burma-Thailand border crossings. Two more centres are planned. Once the process is complete, migrants return with “temporary” passports and two-year visas.
However, for many, NV remains a migrant’s worst nightmare and should not be attempted.
Firstly, NV is potentially dangerous, especially for migrants from the plethora of ethnic groups in Burma who are still at war with the Burmese. They are being asked to deal directly with the junta, which for many is a scary prospect that brings fear of persecution and imprisonment for themselves and their families.
Secondly, NV is complex and non-transparent. Thailand has mounted no public awareness campaign. Officials simply tell migrants to complete NV before February 28, 2010 or be deported. A Burmese government leaflet is the only official information released – claiming the process is “risk free, cheap and friendly”. The reality is that few migrants believe the junta.
Thirdly, NV is costly. The current price is Bt3,000 to 10,000. Brokers remain unregulated and are fleecing migrants, given that someone needs to guide them through the 13-step process. The costs are inappropriate, given that a previous migrant registration process just ended, and migrant incomes are so low.
With such a secretive process, there has been much talk: Land confiscation for families of migrants attempting NV; migrants from Bangkok arrested on arrival in Myawaddy and sent to Insein Prison; widespread extortion by junta officials; migrants committing suicide to avoid the process. Few can ascertain whether these rumours are true, but Thai and Burmese officials denied them outright when they met the media in Bangkok recently.
Migrants have many serious questions about NV, but receive few answers. How is nationality verified? How long does it take? Why are Muslims excluded? What are the actual benefits? Why does Burma refuse to allow NV to take place in Thailand? Is NV related to the 2010 Burmese election? No official answers. So migrants simply dismiss statements that deny the risks.
The number of migrants completing NV is still low – only around 2,000 of an eligible 1 million have been issued temporary passports. But for advocates of migrant rights, should we accept NV as a beneficial reality and move to discuss how it can be undertaken most effectively and safely? What are the alternatives?
Since the early 1990s, Thailand has implemented a piecemeal migrant registration policy that has neither protected rights nor effectively managed flows. The standard procedure has been yearly Cabinet resolutions to allow registration of migrants for 30 days, or occasionally granting an amnesty to all aliens in the country. Costs are Bt3,800 for a work permit and health insurance. Often no change of employer is allowed. Due to lack of awareness, it’s not rare for officials to learn about registration policies after they have been implemented, while employers seem to miss the processes altogether before they end for another year.
So on balance, NV appears a more viable system for managing irregular migration in Thailand than anything. It can at least potentially formalise entry and exit from the country in a way that could reduce exploitation, smuggling and even perhaps trafficking. But if a migrant’s home country is Burma, does something change?
Of course, the root cause of Burmese migrants’ problems is Burma itself. But until that problem can be solved, Thailand cannot deny its responsibility to regulate Burmese migrants and support their access to rights and welfare in the most effective way it can. Activists too should share this heavy burden.
The Thai government’s new NV policy, whatever its ulterior motive may be, should be welcomed. For it has started a meaningful debate. When one of the most vulnerable workforces in the world is faced with systematic exploitation – characterised by one country that refuses to acknowledge its benefits and another that refuses to respond to it – the debate will eventually expose the serious predicament faced by Burmese migrants currently toiling in Thailand.
These migrants are usually passive victims of a situation they were not involved in creating. To be the subjects of intense discussion – which may eventually find a lasting solution to their sad predicament – is surely the least they deserve.
By Andy Hall
Andy Hall is director of the Human Rights and Development Foundation’s Migrant Justice Programme.