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Over the past days thousands of Cambodian workers have fled Thailand amid fears of a crackdown on illegal labor. Thailand expert Kim McQuay examines the reasons behind the exodus and the potential economic implications.
Since the May 22 coup, at least 120,000 Cambodian men, women and children have left Thailand and crossed back to their country amid fears of a crackdown on illegal migrant workers, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The exodus began en masse after Thai army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said on June 11 that the junta viewed illegal workers as a “threat” because “there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems.” Five days later, the junta denied they were pursuing a “sweep and clean” policy of driving illegal foreign workers out of the country.
In a DW interview, Kim McQuay, The Asia Foundation’s country representative to Thailand, says rumors have played a significant role in triggering the mass exodus, but also points out that, beside refuting the reports, there is little indication that the junta is taking significant measures to stop the flow of migrant workers.
DW: When did the exodus begin?
Kim McQuay: For the last several days, there has been a mass exodus of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand back to Cambodia. While there have been occasional references to related movements of migrant workers from other neighboring Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Laos on a smaller scale, attention has focused on Cambodian workers, based on the striking scale of movement among this particular population.
How many foreign workers have left the country so far?
Estimates have tended to focus on Cambodian migrant workers, with the figures cited by different formal and informal sources varying by several tens of thousands. Observers have tended to place particular confidence in the accuracy of estimates provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has swiftly mobilized to provide logistical and other support for the returning Cambodian workers and ease the chaos of movement at Poi Pet and other border crossings.
The IOM estimates that at least 120,000 Cambodians have returned home in the last week, with the volume of movement across the border increasing significantly by the day.
What is driving the chaotic exodus out of Thailand?
The exodus appears to have been propelled by a combination of factors, with rumors playing a significant role. Since the Thai military leadership staged a coup on May 22, the junta has focused considerable attention on the national economy and on addressing issues associated with illegality or lack of enforcement of existing laws and regulations.
While it is not clear at this point just how strict a formal position the junta has taken with respect to illegal migrant workers in general, or to Cambodian workers in particular, recent statements by the authorities have referenced illegal migration among a list of ills to be addressed. Rumors of a pending crackdown appear to have had a double impact: first, on Cambodian workers who fear for their security; and second, on Thai employers who are concerned that authorities could impose harsh fines or other sanctions on businesses that employ illegal migrants.
There are people from many nations working in Thailand. Why are mostly Cambodians fleeing the country?
A combination of factors may account for the mass exodus of Cambodian workers. While estimates vary, it appears that a significant number of Cambodian migrants either failed to enter Thailand through formal channels or allowed their formal legal status to lapse, and that they would accordingly be especially at risk of a strict enforcement crackdown by the junta.
In addition, Cambodia has oddly and indirectly figured in the political tensions that have gripped Thailand for the last decade. A strain of Thai nationalism associated with the anti-Shinawatra Yellow Shirt movement has routinely cast aspersions on Cambodia. This unfortunate phenomenon has most recently focused on unsubstantiated allegations that the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirt movement enlisted Cambodian migrants to swell its ranks.
What can you tell us about the people who are fleeing?
Like those from other neighboring countries, Cambodian migrants come to Thailand with the hope of escaping poverty. While they may earn more in Thailand than they would at home, the modest opportunities that await place them at the bottom of the Thai economic strata. There have been reports in recent days that returning Cambodians face severe economic hardships as they cross the border with little more than the shirts on their backs, with many lacking the resources needed to travel from the border to their home provinces.
How important are these workers for the Thai economy?
Estimates suggest that Thailand hosts as many as three million migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and other neighboring countries, a significant percentage of whom entered Thailand illegally. With Thailand’s advancement to upper middle income status, migrant workers fill a bottom niche that is critical to several branches of the Thai economy, including unskilled industrial labor, the construction industry, seafood processing, and domestic labor.
The post-coup exodus of Cambodian workers has stirred a wave of concern as observers reflect on the implications for the Thai economy if the exodus should spread more broadly through the migrant labor population. To the extent that recent events have been partly by fueled by unchecked rumors, one hopes that a campaign of reliable information will ease the concern that must be surely be building within the broader migrant population, as well as putting remaining Cambodian workers at ease.
What is the junta doing to stop the exodus?
While the authorities have been swift to refute reports that migrant workers have been subject to threats or abuse and to underline the contributions of migrant labor to the Thai economy to quell concerns about the broader economic implications, there is little indication that the junta is taking significant measures to stop the flow of migrant workers out of Thailand.
How likely is it that these workers will return to Thailand under the military junta?
In any context of this kind, a mass exodus can be swiftly triggered while a reverse movement tends to be infinitely slower and hesitant. Considering the fact that migrant workers often go to a considerable degree of effort and make substantial personal investments to travel to another country in hope of economic opportunity, one imagines that it will be no easy thing for Cambodian or other migrant populations to return to Thailand, even if they were made to feel very welcome and secure.
Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative to Thailand.
By: Gabriel Domínguez,
นายวีระชัย ประทีปาระยะกุล ผู้ใหญ่บ้านหมู่ 6 และหมู่ 1 บ้านบางอิน ได้บอกว่า ใครที่เข้ามาอยู่พักอาศัยในหมู่บ้านนั้น ๆ จะต้องแจ้งทางผู้ใหญ่บ้านให้รับทราบทุกครั้งไปเพื่อเป็นการทําประวัติบุคคลต่างด้าวที่เข้ามาโดยไม่ถูกต้อง ในวันนี้ ทหารหน่วยเฉพาะนาวิกโยธินได้ลงพื้นที่จับกุมจําพวกไม่มีบัตรแรงงานและไม่มีหลักฐานอะไร และได้ลงพื้นที่บริเวณตามโรงไม้และตามท่าเรือตามโรงงานและหมู่บ้านได้จํานวน 26 คน มีบัตร 13 คน ไม่มีบัตร 13 คน จากนั้นทางเจ้าหน้าที่ทหารได้ส่งให้กับ เจ้าหน้าที่ ตม.บ้านคลองจาก ต.คลองใหญ่
อ.คลองใหญ่ จ.ตราด เพื่อเป็นการรอผลักดันกลับไปประเทศกัมพูชา
Thai coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday he had been formally endorsed by the king as head of a military council that will run the country, and warned he would use force if political protests flare up again.
Prayuth seized power on May 22, saying the army would restore order after nearly seven months of sometimes deadly street demonstrations. The military has taken into custody scores of politicians, activists and others.
“Will we go back to where we were before? If you want to do that, I will need to use force and impose the law strictly,” Prayuth said in a statement he read on television. “You will have to forgive any tough measures as they are necessary.”
He did not set a timeframe for how long the army would stay in power, although he said he hoped to hold elections soon.
The royal endorsement is a significant formality in Thailand, where the monarchy is the most important institution.
But Prayuth’s address would have provoked conflicting reaction in a country polarized by nearly a decade of rivalry between the royalist establishment, of which Prayuth is a member, and Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist tycoon who broke the political mould.
Prayuth, wearing a formal white dress uniform, said he would set up a council of advisers but gave no details on the form of a government that will run the country under his military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order.
“The country needs a prime minister,” he said.
The military ousted the remnants of a government that had been led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, until she was removed by a court on May 7 for abuse of power. Thaksin was ousted as premier in a 2006 coup.
The military has taken over with a heavy hand, throwing out the constitution, dissolving the Senate and censoring the media. Anyone who insults the monarchy or violates the military’s orders will be tried in a military court.
Despite warnings, small crowds of people voicing opposition to the coup have been gathering daily in Bangkok since the takeover, as well as in the north and northeast, strongholds of the ousted government. There have been no serious clashes.
On Monday, several hundred people gathered at Bangkok’s Victory Monument where about 1,000 protesters massed on Sunday.
Some shouted “we want elections” and “coup get out”, others held up signs saying “we want democracy”, a Reuters reporter said.
Police and soldiers turned in force to block the protesters and there was jeering and some scuffles but no serious trouble. Soldiers in a van with a loudspeaker urged people not to join the protesters, saying they were being paid, and blamed foreign media for trying to damage the country.
While the protests are a nuisance for the army, a more serious threat would be armed resistance from Thaksin’s “red shirt” loyalists. They have always threatened to fight a coup but with so many of their leaders detained or in hiding, activists say they have no plan for opposition.
Authorities seized weapons and detained activists in the northeast last week. On Monday, an army ranger was killed in Trat province, near the Cambodian border, in a clash with suspected pro-Thaksin gunmen during a search, the army said.
YINGLUCK ALLOWED HOME
Earlier on Monday, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former pro-establishment politician who led protests that undermined Yingluck’s government, was released on bail, his lawyer said. He had been held since the coup.
The army has also allowed Yingluck to go home, although she remains under military supervision with soldiers guarding her residence, a military official said on Sunday.
But the easing of restrictions on Yingluck will do little to dispel concern among her supporters that the military is intent on a crackdown for reasons other than simply restoring order.
Thaksin, seen as the real power behind his sister’s government, was ousted in 2006 after his big-spending policies had won him the passionate support of the poor but the animosity of the establishment, who saw him as a corrupt, authoritarian opportunist and a threat to the old order.
The upstart former telecommunications tycoon, who refused to conform with the establishment’s ways, was also accused of being disrespectful to the monarchy and even a closet republican, which he denied.
The former leader, who has lived in self-exile since a 2008 graft conviction, said on Twitter he was saddened by the latest events, and called on the army to treat everyone fairly.
The crisis between the establishment and Thaksin comes amid anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have recently been making a point of showing their loyalty to the prince.
One Thaksin ally, ousted Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, said he expected the military to take steps aimed at sidelining once and for all Thaksin, his family and his allies, and blocking forever his formidable political machine, which has won every election since 2001.
“Any election after that would be meaningless,” Chaturon told Reuters by telephone on Sunday, referring to changes he expects the military to implement.
For now, the military is focusing on ending dissent and getting the economy back on track.
Shares in building contractors jumped more than 3 percent on Monday on expectations the military government would speed up disbursements for infrastructure projects that were put on hold during the months of political unrest.
Among them, Italian-Thai Development Pcl, the country’s largest construction firm, rose 0.5 percent even though the army has summoned its president, Premchai Karnasuta, to appear on Monday, along with 37 others including political associates and big business allies of Thaksin.
Also on Monday, the military officer overseeing the economy met senior economic civil servants.
By: Panarat Thepgumpanat and Paul Mooney; Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Khettiya Jittapong and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alan Raybould, Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie – Reuters
New migrant workers will receive two-year work visas when they are sent to Thailand under the memorandum of understanding system, an official from the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security said.
“We have reached an agreement to issue new red passports for new migrant workers who will work [in Thailand] under the MOU system,” Myo Aung, director-general of the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, told the media during a bilateral meeting on migrant workers, held at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon on Saturday.
“In the past, [the migrant workers] only received one-year [work] visas to work in Thailand. With the new passport, they will not only receive a two-year visa but also only be required to pay 500 bahts,” said Myo Aung.
Both governments have also discussed opening one-stop service centres for Myanmar migrant workers, issuing documents for Myanmar citizens working in the Thai fishing industry, sending new migrant workers only through official agencies recognised by both countries, and issuing temporary passports to migrant workers.
The Ministry has opened offices to issue temporary passports for migrant workers in the border towns of Myawady, Tachileik, and Kawthaung. It sent more than 77,000 migrant workers to Thailand through 66 official agencies from June 2010 through September 2013.
The Ministry has also issued documents for more than 1.6 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand.
By Eleven Myanmar
Published on 15 October 2013