Immigration teams from Myanmar have arrived in Thailand to conduct a long-awaited nationality verification process meant to regularise the status of over half a million workers caught in immigration limbo.
The current plan involves sending out newly arrived representatives from the labour ministry, immigration department and Myanmar Overseas Employee Agencies Federation to all 77 districts of Thailand, according labour officials.
With the help of local guides, the teams hope to conduct a door-to-door survey to establish the passport eligibility of over 660,000 Myanmar workers and their dependants who hold temporary Thai residency cards known as a “pink cards”.
But problems with the strategy already abound.
Those holding pink cards given out during a 2014 post-coup amnesty period represent just a fraction of the estimated 2 to 3 million Myanmar migrant workers who form the low-paid backbone of Thai industry.
And of the 660,000 migrants with pink cards, only a portion will be eligible to apply for a passport as they also need to hold a Myanmar national ID and household registration list.
“We will only be able to issue passports to those who show their household registration list and correct ID cards,” U Thein Win, director of migrant affairs under the labour ministry, told The Myanmar Times.
He added that pink-card holders will also have to fill out a 27-part questionnaire and passport application.
Migrants who left their documents behind when they went abroad can have electronic copies sent to the immigration department by relatives, he said.
But like many in Myanmar, migrants often lack household registration documents. Some – particularly ethnic minorities and those who fled conflict zones – also lack valid national IDs. Others hold mismatched documents that list various name spellings and addresses, having been incorrectly listed by employers or brokers.
“From my perspective this scheme will only help the few pink-card holders who have their household registration and national IDs with them. But what about the other pink-card holders who don’t have all the right cards, or the undocumented workers?” said U Tun Tun Lwin, a member of the Thai-based Migrant Worker Rights Network.
The labour ministry said their priority for the moment is workers eligible for a passport, though they have been discussing with Thailand a scheme for pink-card holders lacking the other relevant documents. Such workers would instead get a “green card”, or certificate of identity.
“We have not gotten an agreement with Thailand yet about the criteria for the certificate of identity,” said U Thein Win, who described the negotiating process as “stuck” for the moment.
The pink-card scheme was initially designed as an interim measure to segue undocumented workers into official migration schemes. The embassy was supposed to verify the nationality of the registered pink-card holders, and provide them with longer-term documents before the Thai-imposed deadline of March 2015.
The deadline elapsed before the nationality verification was even close to complete, however, so the Thai government extended the validity of the pink cards to June 30, 2015. Workers were required to renew them for another year or face deportation.
But as the June deadline approached without an agreement between the neighbouring countries on how to regularise pink-card holders ineligible for passports – and with only a few thousand having even passed the verification process – the deadline was again pushed back, this time until April 2016.
Workers, meanwhile, say they have not been kept abreast of the negotiations, or the revolving set of “correct” documents, including the latest plan to issue passports to pink-card holders.
“I have not heard yet about the [plan to issue passports] for workers in Mae Sot. However, I would like to apply for an ordinary passport because if I got it I could get a work permit and stay easily,” said Myanmar pink-card holder Ko Kyaw Thu.