Yearly Archives: 2009

Human Cargo on the Chinese Border, Washington Post

Ruili, China. This booming little border town in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where the economic prosperity of China is separated from the destitution of Burma by nothing more than a flimsy, rusted metal fence, has emerged as the new front line in the worldwide fight against human trafficking.

On any given afternoon, a steady stream of people scale the two-meter-high fence, unperturbed by the Chinese border guards posted just a hundred yards away. Amid the men from Burma looking for day labor, or women coming to sell their vegetables in the wealthier Chinese markets, is traffic far less benign. Burmese women being brought over for marriages with Chinese men — some forced, some voluntarily arranged through “matchmakers.” Babies being brought into China to be sold. And Chinese women from poorer inland areas being moved in the opposite direction, often ending up in Southeast Asia’s sex industry.

In the shadowy world of human trafficking China has become a source country, a destination country and a transit country all at once, say government officials and foreign aid agency advisers.

“Some of the Yunnan women and girls think they’ll get a better job in Thailand,” said Kathleen Speake, chief technical adviser for the United Nations’ International Labor Office in Beijing. People from Burma “are coming into China. We’re looking at babies being trafficked for adoption, and women being trafficked for marriage.”

No firm numbers are available on the extent of trafficking. Kirsten di Martino, a Unicef project officer in Beijing, said that from 2000 to 2007, China’s public security bureau investigated 44,000 cases of trafficking, rescuing about 130,000 women and children. But, she added, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

China, she said, “is very big, and has a lot of border — and has a whole lot of problems.”

Here in Ruili, two criminal gangs were cracked and 14 women rescued in the first half of the year, said Meng Yilian, who works for the newly formed group China-Burma Cooperation Against Human Trafficking.

“In the villages bordering Burma, there are some people working as matchmakers,” she said. “And some of them are human traffickers. It’s hard to tell who are the matchmakers and who are the traffickers.”

Matchmaking, which falls into legally murky terrain, is rooted in Chinese tradition, which allows a man to make a gift to a woman’s family in exchange for marriage.

In Mang Sai village, the matchmaker is a heavy-set 28-year-old woman who said she has been in the business eight years and had “successfully made 20 matches,” including two involving Chinese buyers and Burmese girls.

The matchmaker — she requested that her name be withheld because her profession is legally suspect — said a local Chinese girl will cost as much as 50,000 renminbi ($7,300). But a girl from Burma, she said, costs just 20,000 renminbi.

She said her matchmaking fee is 3000 renminbi.

“I follow the principle: Only if the two people like each other is it a match,” she said.

Further south, in Jie Xiang town, a pharmacist said it was often difficult to tell which Burmese girls come here voluntarily to marry Chinese men and escape poverty and which ones are the victims of traffickers.

“For the woman 25 to 30 years old, they come voluntarily,” he said. “For those 25 and younger, it’s hard to tell if they come voluntarily or were forced.”

He said he knows one trafficker in the town who is trying to find a buyer for an 8-year-old Burmese girl after selling the mother.

“The border is so long, and there are a lot of channels,” the pharmacist said. “You can’t watch every path. It’s really easy for people to come across.”

A few hours at the border confirmed as much. While the official border crossing point at Jie Gao was relatively quiet — just a few cars passing by and two pedestrians — there was a steady flow over the rickety metal fence nearby, just out of eyeshot of the green-uniformed border policemen.

A woman from Burma, Zei Nan, 51, climbed over the fence carrying a sack filled with vegetables she was hoping to sell. A young man, Zaw Aung, 29, said he crosses over almost every day, looking for day labor. Another woman, Huang Shuguo, 30, came to the fence to bring a change of clothes for her husband, who drives a motorcycle taxi on the Chinese side.

The spot is so well-known as a border crossing point that it could hardly be called secret. Red taxis and motorcycles cruised up and down the narrow street, hoping to pick up migrants. Others stopped to discharge their passengers at the fence.

Several people crossing said that on the rare occasions when the police intervene to stop people, the penalty is a fine and a day in jail. But Zaw Aung said, “We are seldom caught. Even the police know we are climbing over.”

The government, however, recently launched a crackdown on the “matchmakers” as one step in the effort to combat trafficking. And there is evidence that the move has had some effect.

In Huo Sai village, a key transit point for trafficked Burmese women, the matchmaker was nowhere to be found. Residents said the matchmaker had gone underground because of the increased police monitoring.

Keith B. Richburg

Migrant protest ends in violence, DVB

Protests by Burmese migrant workers in western Thailand at the weekend ended in violence after security guards locked around 1500 demonstrators in a garment factory compound.

The protests were triggered after four factory security guards last Friday assaulted two Burmese nationals, Kalar Lay and Ko Waw, who had arrived at the factory in Mae Sot to collect their younger sister.

Kalar Lay was hospitalised after the beating. Ko Waw’s subsequent disappearance drew the demonstrators, mostly women, to the factory compounds.After security guards locked them in the compound, the protestors then set alight to a car belonging to the factory owner, and damaged factory property.

After two days of protests, police on Sunday brought Ko Waw back from Myawaddy in Burma, across the border from Mae Sot.“We protested because there has been a lot of disappointment,” said a female factory worker. “We can only go home from work after midnight, and no one pays attention when we get harassed or violated by someone.”

Another woman who joined the protest said the factory officials on Sunday urged the employees to return to work.“The employer urged us to come back to work starting from [Monday] and promised that they would not take any action,” she said.Workers said it was still unclear if they would have to pay compensation for the damage to factory property during the protest.

Negotiations between factory owners and workers, the majority of whom have not returned to work, are currently taking place.Up to 80 percent of Mae Sot’s inhabitants are estimated to be Burmese, many of whom work in low-skilled industries such as construction or factories for little pay. In Thailand there are thought to be around two million Burmese migrants.Last month around 500 Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot filed a mass lawsuit against 12 factories which they claimed had failed to pay their salaries.Although a programme to register migrants in Thailand is currently underway, many still struggle to gain any sort of legal status in the country, meaning that access to education and health service is restricted.Reporting
by Min Lwin and DVB

Health office seeks B1bn for stateless, Bangkok Post

Minorities, migrants likely to get coverage

The National Health Security Office is seeking cabinet approval for a billion-baht budget to finance healthcare services for more than 500,000 stateless people.

The healthcare budget will cover ethnic minorities, long-term migrants and those born in the country but still waiting for verification of their citizenship, said Pongsadhorn Pokpermdee, an expert at the NHSO overseeing the universal healthcare scheme.

The budget proposal, based on the allocation of 2,401.33 baht a head for patients listed under the universal healthcare scheme, would guarantee the basic right of access to medical treatment for stateless people.

It is likely to be tabled before the cabinet next month, he said.

“Rights of access by stateless people and ethnic minorities to medical care has become a chronic issue reflecting structural problems and basic human rights,” Pantip Kanchanajittra Saisunthorn, of Thammasat University’s faculty of law, told a seminar yesterday held by the Thai Journalists Association.

Ms Pantip said their right to health treatment was being unfairly denied, mainly because they were not Thai.

Agencies, such as the National Security Council, the Interior, Public Health and Social Development and Human Security ministries, the NHSO and Social Security Office, should put the issue of health security above other legal issues when dealing with stateless people, she said.

Visanu Booncha, 15, was denied medical treatment by the public health system in his hour of need.

Born in Ratchaburi, the stateless teenager was denied an emergency appendix operation at a state hospital two years ago because his family was classified as part of an “illegal population”.

He had to seek care at a private clinic instead.

His mother, Banjara, said the family comes from the Mon ethnic group who fled fighting in Burma several decades ago. Members of her family, including Visanu, who was born on Thai soil, had never obtained Thai citizenship.

Buranat Samuttarak, Democrat Party spokesman, said he would talk to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva about improving access to services by stateless people.

The Abhisit government has agreed in principle to guarantee health care to people awaiting word on their citizenship, taking effect from fiscal year 2009 onwards.

Regional Training Course on Labour Migration Management, 1-18 December, 2009

MMN and Mekong Institute (MI) conducted a regional training course on Labor Migration Management in the Greater Mekong Sub-region from the 1st to 18th of December, 2009, following the success of the 1st training in 2008. This training course aimed to enhance capacity of policy makers and implementers of concerned ministries in labour migration management and to foster cooperation among the concerned countries and ministries. 18 government officials from the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Social Welfare, and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior /Immigration, Police and other agencies in the six countries actively participated in the 3 week long training course.

The course curriculum included the overview of and discussion on various migration patterns, global/regional trends and responses, international standards, labour and social issues, bilateral/multilateral agreements and policy formulation.

Various teaching methodologies were employed, such as group work, role plays, debate, roundtable discussion, and exposure trip.

Participants were divided into small mix-country groups, and at the end of the course, they presented their concrete action plans which they commit to carry out in succeeding 6 months as well broader action plans that they hope to implement in 3-5 years. This is to encourage participants to translate new ideas acquired during the training course into practice at their work back home. MMN and MI will follow up on the action plans and provide necessary supports.

MMN and MI will assess the outcome and further revise the training curriculums for future training courses. In addition to the 3 week long training course, MMN and MI plan to co-organise more activities on labour migration in the GMS in 2010-2011.

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Opening ceremony

Mapping migration in the GMS

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Working with flip charts

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Case studies

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Role play for “changing working conditions”

Foreign workers change the face of Thailand, Bangkok Post

International Migrants Day is a good time to remind ourselves what a powerful force migrants can be for the economy, for jobs and for cultural dynamism.

Thailand’s political and economic landscape currently faces many challenges. But one thing is clear: with proper management, international labour migration can create new opportunities and vitality to a workforce.

Demographics are shifting in Thailand, and labour migration into the country will be an important factor in managing the country’s future economy and workforce. Less than 30% of the population is currently under 20 years old. As the productive age group declines, the number of senior citizens depending on old-age benefits, funded by younger workers, will rise.

In the years to come, the economy is expected to grow more dependent on low-skilled migrant labour because of the regionalization of the economy, the growing demand for primary workers in almost all economic sectors and the aging of the Thai population.

Forecasts in 2006 showed that from 2007 to 2012 there would be a need for 300,000 primary workers of whom only 33% can be satisfied by new Thai entrants to the labour market. In order to maintain a productive workforce and stabilise the labour supply in crucial sectors such as agriculture, con struction and manufacturing, more migrants will be needed. To cater to the needs of Thai senior citizens, this workforce will have to be formalised and pay taxes.

So what steps can Thailand take to properly host and manage the labour migrants that it requires? And what can policy makers do to prepare for the necessary increase in labour migrants in years to come?

These questions were debated this week at a seminar organised by the United Nations in tandem with Thailand’s Ministry of Labour. A variety of stakeholders including government officials, academics, employers associations, trade unions, civil society and international organisations discussed how Thailand could best benefit from international migration within an effective policy environment. Their deliberations focused on how migration can be a force for good in Thailand, contributing significantly to human development.

Migrant workers have played a crucial role in defining Thailand as a leading economy in the region. The two million or more unskilled migrant workers currently employed here make up roughly 5% of the Thai labour force. Their contribution to the economy is massive. In 2005, it represented at least 1.25% of the Thai GDP.

At an international level, migration is a fundamental feature in today’s globalised world, with some 200 million people, or 3% of the world’s population, currently living outside their countries of birth or nationality.

Migration management requires a comprehensive approach that considers cross-cutting issues such as health, development, environment, labour, trade, economy, education, gender and human rights. Thailand has recognised the many needs and challenges related to migration by adopting various laws and policies to protect migrants, such as the Working of Aliens Act, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, the Civil Registration Act, health coverage for migrants and access to education for their children.

But what is lacking is an agreed comprehensive framework that acknowledges the interrelationship between these various issues and a common approach to deal with them in a holistic manner rather than in isolation.

As the current chair of Asean, Thailand could lead by example to the region developing a comprehensive framework for managing migration. It could draw on the foundations that have already been laid through regional initiatives such as the Asean Human Rights Body and the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

One positive recent step in this direction is the process under way to regularise unregistered migrants. Migrants from Burma who successfully complete a nationality verification process are allowed to live and work in the country for up to four years. But the regularisation procedure needs to be refined. Efforts must be made by the relevant government departments to simplify the process and make it easier and cost efficient for migrants.

There are many measures to be taken towards developing a comprehensive and effective migration policy for Thailand. What policy makers must not lose sight of is the central need to put human rights at the heart of migration policy and protect the rights of migrants throughout the migration cycle, whether they are documented or not.

The writer is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Thailand.

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