Category Archives: Migrants Caught in Natural Disasters

Migration in 2012: challenging ingrained impunity, Bangkok Post

At cabinet meetings during Thailand’s floods, migration was absent from the political agenda. No specific response was apparently required. Officials reported no “host agency” and neither the Labour, Interior nor Foreign ministries assumed direct responsibility. Law enforcement agencies monitor migrants closely and surely knew how the floods impacted on them, however.

Many migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were on the move during the crisis. For Thais, finding a place to stay with family or at crisis centres was challenging. More than 200,000 migrants faced similar challenges but, with exceptions of kindness and hospitality from some employers and communities, specific obstacles were also unfairly thrown in their way.

For migrants with passports affected by the floods, the freedom of movement they’d paid so much to unregulated brokers for, proved to be their lifeline. Many took buses to “legally” return to home countries or stay with friends in other provinces until the water receded. But once back to work, these workers faced an inflexible and the costly Immigration Bureau response to overstays and expired visas.

But for workers with flimsy registration receipts (the work permit has not been issued to most for over two years) or with no documents at all, the worst in migration management surfaced. Once workers left flooded provinces, opportunistic “brokers” set out to extort them, alongside officials, given that Thai law did not allow migrants to be anywhere but in those flooded provinces and in registered workplaces.

Packed up to 150 people in rented “private” six-wheeler trucks travelling to borders at night and clearly under the radar of corrupt officials, these workers were deported simply for being flood victims. It wasn’t a free ride home either – 2,500 to 4,000 baht a head, shared between all those involved.

For migrants who wanted to stay put in unhygienic apartment blocks, aid deliveries were scarce and some nasty race relations came into play. For paperless workers who wanted to leave, mafia powers confined them to buildings with bolted doors in several areas. Officials didn’t dare intervene. Reports suggest migrants were often refused entry to flood shelters too.

The Labour Ministry insists that it responded adequately to the migrants’ plight. It set up a shelter housing 200 to 400 migrants at any time. Reports suggest government aid was not available to support the shelter so it relied on donations. The Myanmar embassy issued a few hundred documents there, but given no policy-level commitment, these were never recognised by Thai officials.

In hindsight, the migrant flood shelter, whilst necessary, proved more of a distraction, or was more likely an intended PR exercise to counter extensive rights violations migrants were facing outside.

Almost all Thai media, with notable exceptions, did not report on the violations facing migrant flood victims.

Despite a global remit, international media did in contrast provide extensive coverage on the important issue and one United Nations agency strongly intervened, creating some welcome diplomatic pressure. In short, a lack of migrant-specific responses, coupled with abuse of power and violations by some corrupt officials unavoidably occurred during an unprecedented crisis for the country and at what was otherwise a promising time for migration management in Thailand.

But more realistically, the floods highlighted embedded corruption and abuse of power that lie below the surface of the changing migration landscape in Thailand.

Prior to 2011, most migrants in Thailand remained paperless and registration processes remained opaque and bureaucratic for employers and workers alike. Abusive arrests saw migrants spinning into circles of extortion and deportation.

Regularisation, part of an assertion of the rule of law into two decades of a lawless system of migration management, had never been achieved.

Migrant rights protection had miserably failed by domestic standards, also evidenced by increasing interest from UN rights agencies and international media. Trafficking of migrants into labour and sexual exploitation had not been genuinely addressed.

But during 2011, positive developments were evident. A relatively successful regularisation push, albeit employer-led, saw registration soar towards two million.

After initial reluctance to take part in nationality verification (NV) with their home countries, to correct an unavoidable “unlawful” entry into the country, almost 750, 000 migrants (mostly from Myanmar) now possess temporary passports.

NV requires costly payment to unregulated brokers linked to officials on both sides of the border. The process has no linkage to civil registration in home countries. But migrants with freedom to travel (but not change employers) can apply for vehicle licences and are more confident in their improved status. NV is one solution to a bad situation and corruption, deeply entwined in the process, is tolerated.

At the end of 2011, Myanmar’s Deputy Labour Minister Myint Thein made two trips to Thailand to engage on migrant protection. He was eager to ensure that all migrants from Myanmar became legal through NV. Five additional NV centres will open in Thailand next month to reduce costs and increase speed.

Since December a labour attache now works at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. At the height of the flood crisis, Myanmar authorities opened the Mae Sot-Myawaddy Friendship Bridge in Tak province, to ease the suffering of returning flood victims extorted on both sides.

Thailand and Myanmar are showing increased interest and commitment to legal worker “import”, targeting plentiful labour from an undeveloped and still sanctioned country. This would contribute to ending two decades of smuggling, given employers’ dependence on millions of migrants and policy-makers who didn’t prioritise legal migration channels so as to ensure a profitable and irregular status quo.

Appalling stories by fishermen of abuse means this sector remains under scrutiny. Industry leaders deny the problems, which doesn’t bode well for the strong response required to address them. Thailand’s fishing industry is now globally viewed as dependent on trafficking to keep boats at sea.

Increased social protection for migrants has proved an unfulfilled promise. A majority of workers are now unable to access any health insurance as employers fail to register them for social security. Deaths have already occurred. Five years of campaigning for migrant work accident compensation, which included the International Labour Organisation and UN intervention, has seen no improvement.

The right to organise is still denied to all migrants in Thailand, and law enforcement and immigration officials continue to use all means possible to extort money from workers and their employers.

A Tier-3 ranking in the US State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons report is increasingly inevitable if Thailand does not ensure a concerted policy-level response to prevent labour trafficking and to prosecute offenders. The UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking, Joy Ezeilo, has written up a damning yet accurate 2011 assessment of the abusive situation in the country, which has yet to see any genuine response.

Reflecting on Thailand’s migration landscape, whatever positive developments are discernible from the past years, scratch below the surface and impunity and abuse of power seem ingrained, waiting to adapt to any cosmetic changes that are made. A well-thought-out, long-term migration policy for Thailand that equally promotes economic, national and human security for migrants, employers and Thai communities, and which creates a holistic, independent and effective migration management body, remains absent.

NV and import processes should be kept effective, cost-efficient and monitored for abuses to achieve what policy-makers insist is their admirable goal of transparency, legality and rights protection.

Myanmar’s expanding role in migration management will be closely scrutinised in 2012. If abuses occur in its planned recruitment systems, officials should be quick to respond before they become ingrained, as is Thailand’s case. Instead of responding, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam remain too quiet towards all the similar challenges their workers face in Thailand.

Domestic media should start to understand the migration debate more clearly and objectively. Diplomats should be ready to play the “trade” card in the face of exports to their countries that are undeniably linked to migrant rights violations, particularly forced labour and trafficking in fisheries.

Thailand and its neighbours should take a lead, alongside the Philippines, in pushing for the long-awaited Asean framework on migration, to ensure holistic regional solutions to migration challenges which currently receive only weak bilateral responses.

Migrants from Myanmar are planning for the day (which they hope will come much sooner now) when they can return home. Thailand may well soon be forced to combat the ingrained impunity that has characterised migration management here for so long, if it hopes to keep these essential workers as part of the labour force.

By Andy Hall
Published 21 January 2012

Thai floods hit migrant workers hard, AFP

When floodwaters hit Bangkok, migrant worker Tha Gay was immediately fired. He lost his work permit and with it his legal status, then was arrested and deported back to Myanmar.But the 23-year-old construction worker was soon back in Bangkok after he borrowed 16,000 baht ($500) and paid a broker for a space in an overloaded pickup truck to the Thai capital, where he’s now broke, unemployed and illegal.

“I lost everything in the floods — my job, my papers, my housing,” he told AFP at a safe house in the city’s still-flooded Lad Phrao district.

“I’m now in debt from the trip back too. I’ve been looking for work but as I have no papers, no one will take me so far. I’ve got nothing.”

The story of Tha Gay, who was detained for eight days before he was sent home, is not unusual.

He is among about 100,000 migrants from impoverished Myanmar — of a migrant workforce of two million, legal and illegal — who returned home after the devastating floods hit Thailand this summer. About half went voluntarily.

Activists warn that as they seek to make their way back over the border and head to Bangkok, they are turning to old smuggling routes, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

A Myanmar aid worker based in the Thai capital who asked not to be named said that it was likely there would be an increase in trafficking after the floods.

“Traffickers and brokers were very happy with the floods — it was a real bonanza for them,” she said.

Some workers, having lost their jobs and housing to the floods, fled out of choice and faced extortion and abuse by immigration officials and police along the way, activists and experts say.

Others fell foul of Thai regulations which ban registered migrants from leaving their province of employment — even if they are escaping chest-deep flood waters — and were unceremoniously deported.

Those who stayed on in flooded areas struggled to get by as they were largely excluded from mainstream relief efforts, the United Nations said last week, adding it was “concerned” about the lack of support for migrants.

Thailand’s economy relies on migrant workers from its poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

When unusually heavy monsoon rains caused a deluge that swept across much of central and northern Thailand from July — leaving more than 600 people dead and damaging millions of homes — migrant communities were hit hard.

“Abuse of migrant workers in Thailand is well documented, but the floods magnify this to a new level,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Very little has been done by the Thai government and authorities to help migrant workers during the crisis, Sunai said, despite the fact that their labour will be essential after the waters recede.

“We’re talking about a massive reconstruction — but I don’t think it will get better (for migrants) as billions of dollars pours into reconstruction, not judging by the government’s action during the flooding,” he said.

The government has said its priority is to help factories recover and get back to work, not bring in new workers.

“So far, we don’t have any information that businesses lack workers. In my opinion, I don’t think there will be any problem of labour shortage nor that it will affect the recovery of industrial estates or reconstruction,” labour minister Phadermchai Sasomsab told AFP.

For deported migrants who are trying to get back — or new migrants hoping for work during the reconstruction — “the only route is smuggling”, said Andy Hall, a migration policy expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

Tha Gay, whose name AFP has changed for his safety, said his broker ensured he at least made it back to Bangkok, but added his journey was “terrible” and had convinced him never to risk it again.

“It was the most terrible journey, there were 12 of us crammed in the back of the pickup, people moaning, crying and vomiting. I just wanted to die,” he said.

“If they deported me now, I wouldn’t come back again — the problem is, I need to pay back my debt. I just hope I can find work.”

By Agence France-Presse
Published on November 24, 2011

Deported Burmese Await ‘January Solution’ to Return to Thailand, The Irrawaddy

BANGKOK-Tens of thousands of Burmese migrants who fled Thailand’s floods are in danger of trafficking and extortion unless both Thailand and Burma’s governments come up with a plan to facilitate a safe return, say activists.This comes after tens of thousands of Burmese migrant workers were deported from Thailand after homes and workplaces were flooded in the recent disaster, which left over 600 people dead in Thailand.

From September to November 2011, almost 100,000 Burmese migrant workers returned to their homeland via Mae Sot, a town on the Thailand-Burma border that serves as the main land connection between the two countries.

Of these, according to data from the Mae Sot immigration office, 39,841 of the returnees held temporary passports-meaning that they could legally cross back to Burma and can subsequently return to Thailand to resume work at their flooded employment locations.

However, the majority of those fleeing Thailand for Burma during the floods-given as 58,369 at time of writing-did not have passports. Some of this cohort likely held work permits, which only allow the holder to remain in the province of his/her employment.

By attempting to cross back to Burma via Mae Sot, the workers invalidated their permit and therefore could be expelled from Thailand.

Migrant rights groups say that they lobbied the Thailand government to implement a temporary amnesty for undocumented migrant flood victims, or those lacking passports, who sought to return home. However, tens of thousands of Burmese flood victims were deported amid numerous allegations of extortion and trafficking along the Mae Sot border area. Various recent news reports feature Burmese migrants saying they were forced to pay additional fees to cross back to Burma, often to Burmese militias controlling checkpoints on the Burmese side.

Burmese migrants make up an estimated 5-10 percent of Thailand’s labor force and number between 2 and 3 million. Of these, around 1.5 million have registered to work in Thailand.

However, for those migrants who were deported or invalidated their permits, trying to return to Thailand to resume employment will be challenging. According to Claudio Natali of the International Organization Migration (IOM), “There is a gap in the system now, effectively, until there is some process in place for those who went back to Burma but do not have passports to come back.”

The alternative, says Andy Hall, a migrant rights analyst at Bangkok’s Mahidol University, is “for people to try to smuggle themselves back into Thailand.”

That in turn renders people trying to re-enter Thailand as vulnerable to extortion and trafficking, a long-running threat to migrant workers in Thailand. According to a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable from the Bangkok embassy, the Thailand government “recognizes the seriousness of the (trafficking) problem.” Thailand is currently on the US State Department’s human trafficking watch list, still a notch better than Burma, which the same list deems to be among the countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

Hall recently visited the Burmese capital Naypyidaw, where he discussed the situation facing Burmese living in Thailand with Burmese officials. He said that, “The Myanmar authorities insisted to me during my visit that the protection of migrant workers is now a key policy for their government, both as a development strategy but also as a poverty reduction strategy.”

With Burma’s economy floundering, millions of Burmese live abroad, with remittances sent home a vital source of income for families living in Burma. The Burmese government is said to envisage a longer-term Philippines-style policy where emigration is supported as a means of compensating for a stagnant or underperforming domestic economy. A tenth of Filipinos live overseas, and money that “OFWs” (overseas Filipino workers) remit makes up approximately the same percentage of the country’s economy.

For now, the Thailand and Burmese authorities are discussing a joint plan-to come into effect on January 1 20102-to enable those Burmese who were deported to return to their jobs in Thailand, without having to run the notorious broker and trafficking gauntlet along the two countries’ common border.

Jackie Pollock, the Director of the MAP Foundation, an organization that assists Burmese workers in Thailand, said that there needs to be some temporary system implemented on the border to enable migrants who lack passports to cross back to Thailand, and to facilitate employers and business owners who want to “re-hire” Burmese migrants who fled the flooding.

“This was done after the 2004 tsunami, so something similar should be possible this time around,” she said.

But whether or not Burmese migrants will be made aware of any joint plan to facilitate their safe return to Thailand remains unclear, with officials seen as slow to disseminate information. According to Claudia Natali, “The majority of migrants do not hear about such policy developments, and if they do, it is long after implementation”.

By Simon Roughneen
Published on November 24, 2011

Discrimination, food shortages for Myanmar migrants in Thai floods, Alertnet

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The green floodwaters are opaque, chest deep in some areas and often foul-smelling. Road signs and household items submerged beneath the surface make walking through them dangerous.This is Rangsit, a sub-district north of Bangkok and home to a large number of migrant workers from neighbouring, impoverished Myanmar. It is also one of the areas most affected by the worst floods Thailand has seen in half a century.

Here, where three bustling markets used to employ thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, waste – especially oil – from inundated kitchens and rusting vehicles floats on the surface. Yet migrant children and their parents play in the water happily, oblivious to the dangers to their health.

The water level has gone down in the market areas. But on Friday the roads were still closed and many workers, who are on daily wages, worry about the long-term ramifications of the devastating floods which have claimed 564 lives since July.

“I don’t think businesses can start again so quickly because consumers would not have much money after the floods,” said Lay Phyu, from Karen state in eastern Myanmar, who used to earn 300 ($10) to 400 ($13) baht a day working in one of the markets.

“This means they would reduce the number of workers they hire. I think job opportunities for both new and returning migrants would be very difficult,” he added, resigned to living with floods for at least a few more weeks.

With no income since flooding started a month ago, he had been living on instant noodles he’d bought in anticipation of the floods.

MIGRANT WORKERS HIT HARD

“(The) Red Cross came once and gave cooked food and other items and Save the Children also came and helped us,” said the 32-year-old.

On Friday, he was volunteering with Myanmar Development Foundation, which was set up to help migrants and was helping Save the Children distribute food and hygiene kits to 100 migrant families with young children in Rangsit.

“But one group who came with rice and water didn’t give them to the Myanmar people. They said it was only for the Thais. It made us feel very sad,” he said of a different group.

The group came back another day and gave them aid in the end. But Thailand has come under fire for its treatment of migrant workers caught up in the floods.

Activists said the government has failed to help migrants trapped in houses and factories and that many face discrimination when it comes to flood assistance.

With the inundations forcing seven industrial estates and many factories to close, migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos have found themselves without a job or a place to live in.

Many choose to go home. The International Organization for Migration said close to 100,000 migrant workers returned to Myanmar between Sept. 1 and Nov. 10.

Others stayed and fended for themselves – some because of concern over their illegal status, some because of work commitments or fear of losing jobs or possessions.

For some, it just doesn’t make economic sense to go home.

“We can’t afford the cost of going home or the cost of coming back after going home,” said a young man from Myanmar who declined to be named. He is amongst half of the 1,500 or so people from Myanmar living in another part of Rangsit who decided to stay put.

“Here we could at least live cheaply and eat whatever we have,” he added.

“Of course we don’t have adequate (food), we just have to make do with whatever there is,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

MALNUTRITION CONCERNS

Such changes in dietary patterns, as well as an increase in commodity prices, pose health threats.

“They have difficulties making a living now so it affects the nutrition of the children,” said Soe Hlaing, a resident in the area and a volunteer aid worker. “The children are not growing as they should be.”

The community there had suffered flooding for two months, though less than in the market area and now waters there have receded significantly. But their worries are far from over.

With local residents also out of work, competition for jobs has become fiercer.

And mosquitoes that came with the stagnant waters carry the threat of vector-borne diseases such as dengue for both adults and children, while three out of four factories in the neighbourhood have closed and few expect them to reopen before mid-December.

By Thin Lei Win
Published on November 22, 2011

Labour panel helps workers in flood zones, Bangkok Post

The Thai Labour Solidarity Committee and labour unions in flood-affected areas have set up a number of offices to provide help and advice to workers encountering flood-related problems.

Five centres have so far been established to reach out to flood affected labourers and receive complaints regarding the impact of the floods on their employment.

The first centre is located at the TLSC’s head office in Ratchathewi district of Bangkok. This centre also serves as a coordination bureau for receiving complaints from flood-affected workers from all areas.

The second centre is in Ayutthaya’s Bang Pa-in district and is responsible for helping workers at the Rojana Industrial Park, Saharattananakhon Industrial Estate, Bangpa-in Industrial Estate, Hi-Tech Industrial Estate, Nava Nakorn Industrial Estate, and Factory Land Industrial Estate.

The third centre is in Pathum Thani’s Khlong Luang district and is responsible for distributing donated relief supplies to flood-affected workers in the province.

The fourth centre has been set up at the Thai Allied Committee with the Desegregated Burma Foundation’s (TACDB) office in Bangkok and is responsible for providing help to migrant workers from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in all flooded provinces.

A number of workers in Samut Sakhon were required to return to work after their employers successfully pumped out water from their factories, said Aranya Chaimi, a coordinator of a labour group in the Om Noi municipality in Krathum Baen district of Samut Sakhon and Om Yai municipality in Sam Phran district of Nakhon Pathom.

The orders for workers to go back to work came with an ultimatum that if they failed to show up they would lose their jobs, which is unfair because the roads leading to those factories as well as to the workers’ homes were still largely flooded, Ms Aranya said.

Ayutthaya labour group chairman Udom Kraiyarat said subcontract workers were of particular concern because they were more susceptible to being laid off.

Penchan Charoensuthipan
Bangkok Post
Published: 15 Nov 2011 at 12:00 AM

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