The Nation: Migrant workers must be treated with compassion

Burmese and others caught in flood should get free passage, not be fined


Thailand is going through a tough time at present, with millions hit hard by dramatic flooding. This is a national crisis that will cost the country billions. Amid this drama, there have been some magnificent reactions from volunteers, companies, as well as troops, government and city officials who have worked tirelessly for the public good. There have also been less than laudable responses, with some people taking advantage of others caught in the confusion and traumatic events that have played out in recent days. When disasters of this magnitude occur it is often people at the lowest levels who are worst affected. Here, that usually means the vast “underclass” of migrant workers. As well as millions of Thai victims there were many hundreds of thousands of Burmese, Lao and Cambodian workers, both registered and unregistered, who suddenly lost jobs. Many also found themselves with nowhere to stay. In some cases this was because emergency shelters had a policy of only accepting Thais. For some reason, state officials were so preoccupied with other things, they appear to have had no plan on how to help the “little people” caught in this crisis. In recent days, however, senior government ministers have been scrambling to rectify this oversight.
When news emerged last weekend that tens of thousands of Burmese were heading home – forced to travel back to Tak province and get a boat at Mae Sot over to the unofficial crossing in Myawaddy overseen by the DKBA, a rebel group allied with the junta – the Thai government suddenly announced that Burmese workers could take refuge at a temple in Nakhon Pathom. Within a day there were 500 people at Wat Rai Khing, and, allegedly no room for any more. Meanwhile, ordinary Burmese were being arrested by Thai police for being outside the province where they worked. Sometimes it was because they had no passports – still notoriously hard to get in their homeland, particularly for ethnic minorities in eastern Burma. For some, it was because employers kept their passports – a practice that is illegal but very common. In other cases, police in Bang Sue were openly seeking bribes – Bt4,000 to get each person back. On Friday, six “legal” migrants accused police at Victory Monument of stealing their money. This is the ugly side of Thailand, which needs to be stamped out aggressively. The new police chief should take note.
But let’s not forget, the miserable treatment Burmese workers usually endure in Thailand, stems largely from their own government, which, until the last year or so, virtually took no interest whatsoever in the well-being of their own people. The supposedly civilian regime in Naypyidaw has yet to open the border crossing at Mae Sot – shut more than a year ago in the lead-up to the 2010 election. This has meant that all Burmese workers who returned to Myawaddy (up until at least a day ago) had to pay a bribe to the DKBA to return to their homeland.
This messy situation has led to appeals by groups such as the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) for the Thai government to allow migrant workers unimpeded access to essential services. They should also issue a directive to allow migrants to leave Thailand temporarily and return after the floods have receded without being penalised. “Thailand’s computerised register of migrant workers can be used to reactivate their permits and visas on return,” MMN’s Jackie Pollock said. That would prevent workers being fleeced for making a journey that is partly humanitarian in nature and largely out of their control.
Groups such as MAP Foundation in Chiang Mai have been getting constant calls from migrants in areas such as Pathum Thani who had no power, food or drinking water. “Feeling excluded from relief efforts and isolated from any assistance”, many just wanted to get home as quick as possible, Ms Pollock said. But those with only a temporary ID card (Tor Ror 38/1) or a migrant workers card risked losing legal status in Thailand by crossing back to their country of origin. “Migrants with temporary passports are allowed to leave but need to make a re-entry visa somewhere before they leave.” More than 100,000 Burmese have reportedly done this.
The good news is the new Burmese administration is doing more for their people. Officials at their embassy in Bangkok have reportedly moved to set up systems so that migrants crossing back into Burma at Mae Sot/ Myawaddy are not extorted by the DKBA. Still, groups are having a tough time getting supplies to those in need. “Army trucks are difficult to get,” activist Andy Hall said. There was also a shortage of food and volunteers were “encountering electric shock, crocodiles and chemicals”, he said.
For Thais, who have copped a bucketing both physically and literally, the message is simply: Don’t succumb to the temptation to extort and brutalise those who are weak and unable to defend themselves. These may be testing times, but Bangkokians have got through these tests before and will do so again.  In crises such as these, police and state officials should try to act with utmost compassion and patience. A graceful approach will encourage workers to return and help speed the recovery we all desperately want.