Yearly Archives: 2009

Security Sweep Rounds Up Migrants, Irrawaddy

About 62 Burmese migrants who work at the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai were arrested on Tuesday, reportedly as part of a security sweep prior to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s two-day visit to Chiang Mai starting on November 28.

Aung Toe, 40, a Burmese migrant, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, “They arrested many people while they were working, including some who had work permits.”

He said authorities swept through the popular Night Bazaar looking for people who appeared to be Burmese.

“I escaped because I look more Chinese or Japanese,” Aung Toe said.

Another Burmese worker in the market, Phe Be, said people who tried to run away were beaten by police.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will be in Chiang Mai on a two-day visit, his first since he was elected one year ago.

The security in the city is tighter than before since a local radio station announcer who supports anti-government group reportedly made threatening remarks about taking the prime minister’s life if he came to Chiang Mai. The government is investigating the threat.

An opposition political group, known as the Red Shirts, has said it will hold demonstrations during the prime minister’s visit.

Jackie Pollock, a founder of of the Migrant Assistance Program (MAP), a Chiang Mai-based NGO said, “The challenge to the current administration is from the electorate, not from the migrants who have no political rights. To try and silence a group of people like the migrants who are already silenced makes little sense beyond diverting the media and others’ attention away from the real issues.”

An estimated 80,000 Burmese migrants—both registered and unregistered—work in the Chiang Mai area. The majority are ethnic Shan.

By LAWI WENG

Illegal Burmese migrants: caught between hiding or becoming legal, The Nation

MANY OF the estimated 2 million Burmese migrants currently living in Thailand can remember the mass deportation a decade ago. With the threat of another mass expulsion looming, migrant workers are exploring their options and hoping to avoid the panic, the desperation and the dangers of November 1999.

This collective memory is in itself an acknowledgement of the number of years that migrants have given to Thailand, but despite this, they still have limited options to secure their livelihood, safety and all options that render them temporary commodities.

Newly arrived migrants from Burma only have one option and that is to live and work illegally in Thailand. Migrants who have missed all of the registrations offered by Thailand must also live a clandestine life. Migrants who have registered and re-registered since 2004 have the option of re-registering but this time with the proviso that their details will be sent to Burmese authorities to have their nationality verified. Those who pass this scrutiny will then be issued a temporary passport to allow them to enter Thailand legally for work. Ironically, the illegal workers may be the most permanent of all the workers. They certainly are the largest in number, currently estimated at around 1.5 million.

The 600,000 registered migrants have permission to stay year by year, with a threat of deportation at the end of each 12-month cycle. Next year, all the various registration processes expire on the same date, February 28, 2010, with the threat of mass expulsion.

The temporary passports being issued to migrants, who have had their nationality confirmed, are part of a process started by the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Thailand and Burma in 2003. To date, only around 2,000 Burmese migrants have been issued with passports. As the name implies, these passports are only valid for three years. Migrants with these passports can then apply for a work permit, which may be extended for a further two years. After four years of working in Thailand, the migrant will not be allowed back for three years.

Many of the ethnic nationalities of Burma fear repercussions for their families if they enter the verification process and so are opting out of the whole registration process. Having read the policy and heard the threats, they are preparing to go home. They are working hard, saving money and asking around about jobs in other countries. They will require some assistance from Thai authorities to safely return to the border and bid farewell to their lives in Thailand.

Others who are rejecting the verification and passport process are making preparations of a different kind. They are preparing to return to the illegal status and continue working. Many already have the experience of being considered illegal and their experience is often that legal status does not make a great deal of difference. Registering for a migrant worker’s card has never guaranteed a minimum wage or proper health and safety standards or even days off. So, they will save the money they would normally have paid for registration, and instead give it under the table when demanded from the local police or immigration. They are also preparing to ward off brokers and traffickers, and to run when needed.

And then there are some migrants who vacillate between getting verified or not. The right to have a nationality, passport, be legal for four years, be able to travel by local transport or drive are tempting. But the concerns about taxation, repercussions on family members, increased costs and the experience that the Burmese military regime has no qualms on backtracking on policies and promises remain strong deterrents. Maybe if the incentives were greater, more migrants would enter the process. If having a passport and work permit guaranteed regular payment of minimum wage; if it was not left up to the discretion of the employer to register workers in the social security system to ensure that workers got free healthcare and welfare benefits and rights; if the work permit did not come with the three-year ban; maybe if migrants were not classed as second-class citizens only worthy of a temporary passport; maybe if migrants could travel on a normal passport and make their own decisions regarding which country offered better conditions, more migrants would be eager to join the process.

Even the previous registrations of migrant workers in Thailand in their own way provided more security and stability than the four years of the passport. Though only annual policies, they have been renewed again and again over the last 17 years. Even the current policy acknowledges the length of time migrants stay. All those migrants registering today have been in Thailand for five years. With the passport system, they would be long gone, having passed their expiry date of four years. With the ban on returning for the following three years, they will surely be off to the Middle East or elsewhere, certainly not waiting around to return to Thailand.

Registration, temporary work permits, illegal status – the choices are limited. And the choices all ignore the migrants and their families, their lives, their talents, their interests and their dreams. The choices all focus only on the productivity of the migrants, on the profits for the employers and the country’s economy. Woven through every policy is the discourse of illegality and impermanence. It is time that migrants were afforded identity, rights and protection as people as well as workers. A migrant’s right to healthcare or to housing should not be dependent on an employer. Migrants need legal status as a people first and then as workers.

“Booths on the border” is one possible solution. A migrant crosses into Thailand and immediately gets a card with a photograph, which is then entered into a computerised system. Thailand has the technology. The long porous border, supposedly impossible to man, seems a bit of a myth when one sits and watches the rubber rings floating across at Myawaddy to Mae Sot. If the border is so long and porous, why cross right in front of the immigration authorities? Land-mined and militarised might better describe the Thai-Burma border. Immediate documentation of migrants on arrival would put traffickers out of business, and brokers could only facilitate not manipulate the labour market. Migrants could travel freely to their places of work and then register with local authorities once they have found work.

More migrants might come, but more migrants might also return. Research has shown that the greater the restrictions placed on migration, the longer migrants stay put. Ease the restrictions and migrants can move with the economy, the labour flows and the normal patterns of ones life. The restrictions mean that migrants risk everything to move and so will not take that risk a second time, they will stay in the country of destination despite economic downfalls or bad conditions because the risk of getting home and not being able to return is too great.

If limiting the number of migrants arriving is a concern, then Thailand together with Asean countries need to address the situation in Burma. Migrants from Burma are simply looking for a chance to have a stable, secure livelihood and outlive the military regime. Asean needs to speed up the demise of the military dictatorship in Burma and give migrants the choice of living in their own country or migrating for work.

There is an urgent need for review of the policies towards migrants and towards Burma. Mass expulsion and mass unemployment of migrants without temporary passports in February 2010 is a repugnant solution; collective expulsions are inherently arbitrary and thus prohibited under international human-rights law. They invariably result in accidents, abuse and the separation of families.

Migrants have voiced concerns over the temporary passports, and these concerns need to be taken into consideration for future policies. The temporary passport may be one option but it is not the choice for most migrants, and would take years to implement even with full cooperation from the migrants, employers and Burmese authorities. Migrants are asking for policies which protect their rights and dignity as people, which enforce labour standards equal to their Thai counterparts, and which do not force them to live in states of insecurity, instability and dishonesty.

By JACKIE POLLOCK

ASEAN to create immigration database, AFP

Ten Southeast Asian nations pledged Wednesday to create a regional immigration database to catch criminals and terrorists going across their borders, the group said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to set up “an immigration database so we can track blacklisted nationals”, said Philippine immigration spokesman Floro Balato.

“This applies to everybody (involved in) terror activities, illegal activities and transnational crimes,” said Balato at the end of the two-day meeting of ASEAN immigration officials.

The group gave no timetable for completing the project, with Balato saying some members still did not even have advanced immigration databases of their own.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“This is a continuing dialogue,” Balato told reporters.

Also during the meeting, Australian deputy secretary of immigration Bob Correll warned on the surge of illegal migrants into Southeast Asia in the last 12 months and discussed ways Australia and ASEAN could cooperate in this area, a conference statement said.

“Specifically delegates agreed on the need for further cooperation in intelligence analysis, information sharing, facial-image analysis, immigration investigations, visa integrity and the integration of immigration capabilities,” it added.

Three years and counting, Bangkok Post

The continuing plight of the 158 Lao Hmong held in the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre

It’s an odd place for playtime, but every morning, at about 10am, the yard surrounding the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) fills with children. The long-worn-away lawn becomes a bocce ball court, and a place for the IDC’s 158 Lao Hmong detainees, 87 of whom are children, to get some exercise and a breath of fresh air.

These two-hour periods outdoors are the closest to freedom and normalcy they get. Even then, they are fenced in by barbed wire and under the watch of IDC officers.

The group has been detained at the IDC, a two-storey structure on a shady street in Nong Khai, for the last three years. They are only a few minutes walk from the Mekong River, and from there, just a short swim to Laos.

According to regulations, they sleep and spend much of their time in two, sunless cells on the IDC’s first floor – women and children in one, men in the other. Both are under video surveillance.

Although they are denied visitors – be they humanitarians, journalists, concerned backpackers or anyone else who hasn’t managed to schedule an appointment – delegations of Lao officials visit them regularly. According to the detainees, these officials enjoy access no longer granted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are given a warm welcome and refreshments by the IDC staff.

Detainees say their lives are bleak for many reasons, but their biggest fear is that they will be sent back to Laos.

On Tuesday, the Lao Hmong refugees will celebrate their New Year. They’ll be given extra chicken portions for the occasion, and the mood at the centre may be unusually festive; yet the occasion will also mark a far less joyous date – it will be the third anniversary of their captivity.

In 2006 the group – less the 11 that have been born since – was arrested in Bangkok on charges of illegal immigration. They had been living in the Thai capital with UN-recognised refugee status, awaiting resettlement to third countries, including the US, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

At the time of their arrest, according to an immigration official quoted in a Thai newspaper, their UNHCR documents were confiscated in an effort to verify their legitimacy.

The documents were real, but have never been returned, and the Thai and Lao governments have never recognised their refugee status.

Still branded illegal immigrants, they have been fighting forced repatriation and living in detention centres ever since. The governments of Thailand and Laos have said that the group must return to Laos before resettlement in third countries will be reconsidered.

Oddly, the fate of these internationally recognised refugees has fallen into the hands of the very government they fled.

A US official, who declined to be named, commenting on the case said: “It is not unusual for countries of origin to insist that refugees return, claiming that conditions are safe. However, it is unusual for countries of first asylum [such as Thailand] to agree to such demands,” as it raises concerns that individuals will again be “subject to persecution and other conditions that caused their flight in the first place”.

The international community has unanimously declared the situation untenable.

“After three years of detention of men, women and children, recognised refugees, who have not committed any crime, we call on all parties to find an end to their plight,” says Kitty McKinsey, the communications officer for UNHCR, which has advocated third-country resettlement and immediate release of the Lao Hmong from detention. But such calls have, so far, made little difference.

The first of the governments’ forced repatriation efforts took place in December 2006, when the group was moved from Bangkok to Nong Khai. Zhong Lee, a former jungle leader and one of the most vocal of the 158, claims that on that day immigration officials stripped the group of mobile phones and tricked them onto a truck bound for the Lao border. The repatriation attempt ended as they have on all occasions since – unsuccessfully and at an impasse – with a diplomatic outcry and desperate measures taken by the Hmong themselves. Lee claims he threatened to kill himself in the truck that day. He and several other men have made similar threats since – his willingness to die in detention came up several times in our conversation – and the group has twice staged hunger strikes, the longest of which lasted for four days, in protest against the forced repatriation efforts.

These efforts – Zhong mentions at least four serious attempts – have continued with varying and increasingly solicitous tactics. He claims the group has been visited by large numbers of Lao and Thai officials, pressured with statements of blame and belittlement, and on the last occasion, courted by a high-ranking Lao general who brought seven of their Lao Hmong relatives with him, and made promises of free land and peaceful living.

Such assurances have done little to inspire the trust of the Nong Khai group. Zhong rattles off a long history of duplicitous persecution and remains certain that the Hmong that visited them were not there under their own free will. He believes returning to Laos will leave the group in the hands of officials who will “make problems for us”. He speculates imprisonment, exposure to harmful chemicals or “disappearance”. The high profile of some of the Nong Khai detainees as resistance leaders – one of whom publicised an alleged 2006 massacre of 26 Hmong women and children – add weight to their concerns.

There is also a recent precedent. Of a group of 29 Lao Hmong refugees repatriated by force from Thailand in 2005, 21 girls spent a year in a prison and the whereabouts of that group’s leader, 59-year-old pastor Zoua Yang, have never been acknowledged.

Meanwhile, the group has lost hope of intervention by the international community. As untenable as governments and international organisations have found the situation in Nong Khai, their advocacy has done little to shift or influence Thai or Lao policy. The situation is further complicated by the Thai government’s coupling of it with another protracted Lao Hmong refugee situation. More than 5,000 Lao Hmong asylum seekers live in Phetchabun’s Huay Nam Khao camp, and face similar mandates of repatriation.

“We are encouraging Thailand to adhere to international norms, but the Thai position has been inflexible and we do not expect their agreement in the near term,” said the US official, who added that no progress has been made with efforts to convince the Thai government to begin resettlement processing of the group – an offer extended by several governments – or to find an alternative to detention.

Even so, the lack of sway these diplomatic players have had on the situation – particularly the US, which played a role in the antagonism between the Hmong and their government when it recruited and trained them to fight Communists in the 1960s – has been increasingly interpreted as abandonment by the detainees.

“We used to help the Thai and the US, but right now, they’ve forgotten us,” Zhong says.

With no hope for the future, Zhong at times seemed to be still trying to make sense of the predicament they face. “It’s very sad and very upsetting. We’re just refugees. If we were illegal immigrants, we’d be here for only a few months. We’ve been in detention for three years.

“It’s not fair when compared with how other nationalities are treated. They give us no positive news, no hope – they just indicate that one day we’ll go back.”

While it is no consolation to the endless detention, there have been nominal improvements to the group’s living conditions.

Last month the group was given freer access to water, which had previously been trucked in from a fishing pond, filtered and used conservatively. The detainees are also known to recycle water from splash showers.

Donations have yielded additional clothing, increasing means to pass the time – sports equipment, craft materials, a garden plot, periodic English lessons – and an additional room where, as an alternative to the upstairs cells, detainees can pass the day. Recently they’ve also been provided with a teacher who gives English and Thai lessons.

Healthcare has also improved over time. Since September 2007, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) has arranged for a nurse to visit for two hours a day to provide basic healthcare for the group. Those with more serious health issues – one woman suffered a brain aneurysm last year – are treated at the local hospital. Dr Nigoon Jitthai, the IOM’s Migrant Health Programme Officer, says the nurse also provides basic counselling to the Lao Hmong, adding that stress and anxieties are usually relieved simply by dispelling rumours and correcting misinformation among the group – usually related to imminent repatriation.

“There’s a lot of false information, and they become worried. We correct it – there is no clear decision on how to manage the group.”

While the counselling service is not limited to these assurances, some observers worry about a lack of more intensive psychological care for the detainees – especially given the group’s record of suicide threats and their protracted period of detention.

Several people I spoke to raised concerns about the perilous state of the group’s mental health. Joe Davy, co-founder of the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, who has visited the Nong Khai facility numerous times and is close to the detainees, calls the physical and psychological conditions of the group’s detention “torturous”. Aside from the stress of the lives they fled, the repeated repatriation attempts and three years in detention, observers note members of the group suffer from simply being indoors for too long – they are used to living outdoors – and from guilt for giving birth or raising children in a detention center, he says.

Zhong claims these thoughts are often encouraged by IDC officers, who remind them they will one day return to Laos, and often blame them for wasting resources.

Zhong, for one, says he will die in Nong Khai, although he also says that is one of his fears, before he will be returned to Laos.

But surprisingly he has a good understanding of the strict code of the IDC officers. “They make problems for us, because we make problems for them.” I asked him what he meant, and he said they’ve resisted repatriation, and the rules were strict.

After a total of seven people escaped in 2007 – two were captured and sent to prison – the group has made a no-escape pact, and patrols by the IDC prevent further escapes. After 11 babies were born in detention, the group has become careful to not let it happen again. Zhong says officers have forbidden them to have any more children, although Dr Nigoon says that’s not the case, it’s just not a fit place to have a baby.

Zhong is less accepting of the new “no visitors” policy, a change made earlier this year, reportedly after a spate of visitors contributed to the spread of photos and reports on the group’s situation. Their cause is posted and widely followed on Facebook. At the time, visitors were turned away with claims of fear of a swine flu outbreak. When backpackers returned with doctor’s certificates guaranteeing their health, they were simply turned away, and the policy has since been officially changed.

Mr Davy, of the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, says this change in policy has taken a significant psychological toll on the group.

The effect has been perhaps greatest on the children. While not all are familiar with the details of their circumstances, they all seem to share the same bleak outlook.

One teenage boy I spoke with told me he was sad, and wanted to die. He could not go out. He found no joy in the available activities, and had no use for his English classes.

“I don’t understand why we’ve been here so long. I want my freedom, just like everyone else” he said.

Burmese Migrant Movie Premiers at Film Festival, Irrawaddy

A movie depicting the plight of Burmese migrants in Thailand will be shown for one night at the World Film Festival in Bangkok on Saturday, Nov. 14.

The 96-minute drama, “Colors of Our Hearts,” is based on four true stories involving migrant workers and ethnic hill tribes people: an Akha migrant girl who was sold to a brothel; a Karen girl forced to work as a slave; a migrant teacher; and a Mon boy who dreams of a new schoolbag and meeting the Thai king.

The crew and cast of the movie include Burmese, Thai, Mon and other ethnic persons. The film was shot in Mahachai and Chiang Mai, where many Burmese migrants work.

“Colors of Our Hearts” was produced by an NGO, Friends without Borders, and was directed by Supamok Silarak. The screenplay was written by Th’blay Paw and Hta Haw Koh.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, Th’blay Paw said, “The film intends to raise awareness about Burmese migrants. We want the Thai people to see migrants as human beings, just the same as Thais.”

Burmese migrants have very hard lives in Thailand, she said. They sometimes get arrested and often have to run from the police. I have memories of this from my childhood in Mahachai. I felt very sorry for them. To help, I decided to make a film, which is a powerful medium to let more people know about what is going on around them.

“Our film is different from other movies, because real migrants played parts, not professional actors and actresses. So, it is very realistic to watch,” she said.

“Colors of Our Hearts” is a sequel to the movie “Hongsa’s Schoolbag,” which debuted at the World Film Festival last year and won first prize.

“Hongsa’s Schoolbag” tells the story of a Mon boy living with his migrant parents in Mahachai, a port near Bangkok. In the film, his mother tells him not to play with Thai children because if he falls out with them he will be sent back to Burma. The boy, Hongsa, grows increasingly confused about why Thai police ignore criminals and only arrest innocent migrant workers.

The film portrays the unfairness and lack of freedom and movement that Burmese migrants face every day in Thailand. It shows that migrants are restricted to the provinces where they work, cannot meet in groups and cannot own motorcycles or cell phones.

Estimates of the number of Burmese migrants in Thailand vary from 2 million to 5 million. However, only 500,000 registered with the Thai Ministry of Labor in 2008. There will be about 1 million registering this year, according to Moe Swe, the head of the Mae Sot-based Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association.

Thailand and Burma have agreed to temporary passports for Burmese migrants to be issued at certain offices on the Thai-Burmese border. To date though, only 2,000 people have applied for the documents. Many migrants say they are afraid to register because of repercussions their families in Burma could face.

The deadline for migrants to apply for temporary passports is the end of February 2010. Migrants who don’t have passports will reportedly be repatriated to Burma.

By LAWI WENG

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