Bangkok Post: Doubts being raised over migrant rights

A new crackdown on immigrant workers is raising concerns among human rights agencies at home and abroad

On May 23, eclipsed by the news of the red shirt crackdown, 13 Chin migrants – three of them children under the age of five – were killed en route to Malaysia when the truck transporting them crashed in a police chase in Cha-am.

The truck they were travelling in.

The truck, carrying 29 Chin and driven by a paid Thai agent, plunged off the road after police shot out the vehicle’s tyres.

Two survivors remain in hospital; the rest were deported after a period of detention in the Immigration Detention Bureau in Bangkok. The dead, who were buried at the hospital in Phetchaburi province, raised the tally of migrants in Thailand who have lost their lives to acts of suppression this year to 27.

Even so, on June 2, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva approved Order No125/2553, which provided for the “Special Centre for the Suppression, Prosecution and Arrest of Migrants Working Underground”.

The centre, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, integrates the efforts of law enforcement, immigration and labour agencies at regional and sub-regional levels.

The centre’s objectives are to suppress the 510,000 migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Laos who, this year, failed to apply for work permits, or to extend those they already had, according to the Department of Employment, which hosts the secretariat of the multi-agency centre.

While not explicitly mentioned in the order, the unknown number of migrant workers – estimated to top one million – that have never registered with the government, let alone applied for a work permit, are also likely targets of the order.

Supat Gukun, deputy director-general of the Employment Department and secretary to the centre’s administrative working group, says the suppression is an effort to drive out migrant workers who are here illegally, so that they can return to work in Thailand through legal channels, presumably the Memorandum of Understanding systems that exist between Thailand and neighbouring countries. The MoU with Burma, that will send in “fresh workers”, is in its pilot stage.

Suppression under the order seems to have begun in earnest on June 16 with the arrest of several hundred workers in Samut Sakhon and the start of a spree of mass arrests. According to the centre, 1,587 illegal migrant workers were arrested and 96 employers prosecuted in June.

But the Human Rights Development Foundation (HRDF), which has been monitoring the crackdown through local media reports, has compiled reports that at least 2,971 migrant workers and six employers have been arrested since. The HRDF estimates the figure is actually higher due to recent, less-publicised arrests and the lack of reporting from the Northern, Southern and Eastern regions. Thet Khaing, an official with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), which has been doing its own monitoring of field reports, puts the number of deported migrants at about 10,000.

The order, and the ensuing migrant crackdown, has been met with concern and criticism from migrant rights groups and international observers, who worry that heavy-handed tactics will threaten the safety and rights of workers.

The Mekong Migration Network (MMN), noting the number of deaths of migrant workers resulting from acts of suppression reported this year, said it was “greatly disturbed by this use of lethal force by the various Thai authorities against undocumented migrants. We fear that these deaths and injuries will multiply if the policy to suppress and arrest migrants is enforced”.

Apart from the cases of the Chin workers, nine Karen workers were shot dead in January, allegedly for being unable to pay a bribe to local police, three children were shot dead by soldiers who fired on the car transporting them, and two young sisters drowned while trying to escape a police raid on their camp.

The HRDF shared similar concerns, and questioned the effectiveness of the suppression strategy at a time when many industries were facing labour shortages.

“Experience shows migrant crackdowns lead to an increase in the arrest, detention and extortion of migrants by corrupt government officials, as well as violence and even death in the ensuing chaos. This particular crackdown policy is premature, makes no sense economically and is unlikely to strengthen Thailand’s national security.”

Cynical observers note that the most obvious benefit of the policy will come in the form of payments to the private brokers who will bring workers in through the new “legal channel”. A demand of 30,000 workers has been set for the new Thai-Burma MoU system, according to Mr Supat.

Others have questioned the motives of the migrant crackdown, in light of recent political rumours about the role of migrants in the red shirt movement and the disproportionate number of arrests of Cambodian migrants this month. While 80% of migrant workers in Thailand are Burmese, according to the HRDF’s statistics, almost half of those arrested in the June crackdown were Cambodian.

In some media interviews with law enforcement officers, the crackdown has also been explained as a response to a dramatic rise in crimes by foreigners, a police assessment that followed the 12 million baht bank robbery by Colombians.

More criticism has swirled around the centre’s seeming singular focus on migrant workers, as opposed to traffickers, smugglers and the employers who hire and recruit illegal workers.

Last week Surapong Kongchantuk. a human rights lawyer, questioned whether Deputy Prime Minister Sanan understood the root causes of the issues, and called on the government to address human trafficking rather than only arresting and deporting illegal immigrants and migrant workers.

Still others worry that under the order, arrested migrants will not be screened for being victims of trafficking or individuals in need of other protections – ie, refugees – particularly given the volume of arrests.

“There are just not enough immigration officers, and they don’t have enough time to properly screen. They just interview for a profile of the migrant worker and then send them back quickly,” said a spokesperson for the MMN.

Perhaps most troubling are allegations, published by Human Rights Watch in its April report on abuses of migrants in Thailand, From the Tiger to the Crocodile, and in recent articles in the Irrawaddy, that Thai officials, brokers and soldiers with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army are colluding to extort and ransom Burmese migrants who have been sent for deportation at a checkpoint near the Myawaddy friendship bridge on the Thai-Burma border.

Accordingly, the order has also come to the attention of Dr Jorge Bustamante, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, who told Spectrum he was “very concerned about the execution of the new order”, and particularly the fate of workers who are sent back to Burma where militias are extracting bribes and committing abuses of them. He has other concerns about the process of arrests in Thailand, and says his office has received reports of “gross violations of human rights” towards migrants.

Echoing comments he expressed to the Thai government in a report earlier this year regarding the nationality verification process, Dr Bustamante suggests the “urgent suspension of this order in such a way that nationality verification could be re-opened” to continue regularisation of the more than one million migrant workers who remain unregistered in Thailand.

“We are talking about a supply to the labour force that is needed,” he said, noting that the migrant workforce creates about 7% of Thailand’s GDP. “It is on this premise that we recommend the Thai government pursue regularisation and renewal of the NV process for those that remain in need of it.”

He says regularisation has been a humane and successful model in a number of countries.

Many migrant rights groups in Thailand, including both the HRDF and MMN, have also advocated the re-opening of the nationality verification process to migrants in the country and for their ongoing registration. Mr Supat says these criticisms are misplaced, and that the centre and its policies uphold both Thai law and human rights.

He says the Ministry of Labour worked hard to make migrant workers aware of the legalisation process – which ended earlier this year – by liasising with governments of neighbouring countries and employers of migrant workers. Those who did not take the opportunity to become “legal” have no right to stay in the country, he says.

While he was unable to explain the circumstances surrounding the arrests of migrants or their deportations, as these aspects of the process were handled by law enforcement agencies, he assured they would be carried out according to the law.

Mr Supat says that workers are interviewed by authorities and specially screened for being trafficking victims or in need of other protections, according to Thai laws, before being deported on the discretion of authorities.

He adds that the centre’s objective is not limited to the suppression of undocumented migrant workers, but covers all criminal aspects involved in their existence, including the traffickers, transporters and employers of illegal workers.

Mr Supat says the crackdown will not exacerbate labour shortages, because the order targets only the 500,000 workers who do not abide by Thai law, many of which he suspects illegally ran their own business and didn’t have a Thai employer (this disregards the estimated one million who have not registered at all).

He says there are more than 920,000 registered migrant workers.

“The system is fair enough. If we all follow the regulations, there will be no problems.”

Noting that workers who are regularised are entitled to passports, medical care, motorbike licenses and a salaries equal to Thai workers, he says: “If they come legally, we welcome them and protect them the same as local people.”

The aim of the centre, he says, is to better co-ordinate the management of migrants in Thailand and ultimately make them safer.

“If we’re talking about migrant workers, that means they are here working through legal channels. If they cross borders and find themselves a job, they’re illegal.”