The Ministry of Labour plans to push Thailand to reopen centres that allow illegal migrant workers to register and work legally in the country, a senior Ministry of Labour official said last week.
The centres closed on Friday, December 14, the deadline the Thai government set for undocumented migrant workers to apply for passports under the National Verification program and avoid possible deportation. The decision has been criticised by activists, who argue it puts illegal migrant workers at greater risk of exploitation.
After negotiating a six-month extension in June, the Department of Labour had again asked Thailand to push back the deadline but this time Yingluck Shinawatra’s government stood firm.
Department director general U Myo Aung said he remained optimistic Thailand would reopen the five registration centres and allow more workers to register for the national verification scheme.
“I think we will travel soon to Thailand and discuss a detailed process of how to make our workers safe,” he told The Myanmar Times by phone from Nay Pyi Taw on Thursday, December 13.
“[Thailand] wants to close the five immigration centres, we would like those centres to stay open,” he said. “All countries have their own, national interests. We will cooperate [with the Thai government] … I hope we will [be able to] work for good conditions for our workers.”
He said both President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed on the need to take steps to improve conditions for Myanmar workers abroad, adding that the pair “often speak about protection of our workers in any country – it’s an important issue.”
As of Wednesday, October 31, 1.16 million migrants had registered under the National Verification program, but experts say an estimated one million migrants from Myanmar are still unregistered.
The Thai Department of Employment was unavailable for comment last week but many civil society groups working on the Thai-Myanmar border criticised the closure of the centres, which effectively leaves illegal migrants from not only Myanmar but also Laos and Cambodia with no legal means to register.
Many NGOs and aid networks familiar with the situation voiced concern that the passing of the deadline would make migrant communities even more vulnerable. “[It] could take a bad situation and make it worse,” said U Ko Kyaw Zaw Lin, a Yangon-based advisor to the Migrant Worker Rights Network.
He said that many migrants had been desperate to get a passport before the deadline and brokers, recruitment agencies, and even Thai authorities had taken advantage of this by charging additional fees.
In an open letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered to the National League for Democracy leader on Monday, December 10 in Yangon, the network wrote: “Even now … the cost of applying for a temporary NV (National Verification) passport is already very expensive and extortionate in practice.”
Mr Andy Hall, an expert at Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research in Chiang Mai and adviser to the Department of Labour in Nay Pyi Taw, agreed the unofficial cost of acquiring documents had gone up as the deadline approached.
“What we’ve seen in the last week [on the border] is a clear trend towards brokers and recruitment agencies asking for more money to help the migrant workers receive their passports,” he said on Tuesday, December 11.
He said recruitment agencies and even immigration authorities have started to demand as much as US$700 or $800 for one passport. To cover the cost, undocumented migrants are often forced to take out a loan from Thai organised crime syndicates, sending them into crippling debt and increasing the risk of them being a victim of human trafficking.
Until the program restarts, the many undocumented workers still in Thailand will find themselves with no recourse other than keeping their heads down and avoiding immigration authorities. “Many immigrants we know are liable for deportation,” said Ms Jackie Pollack, director of the MAP foundation, which advocates for migrants rights along the Thai-Myanmar border.
“They’re lying low, and they’re living with that fear and uncertainty … the threat hangs over their heads. It makes them insecure and it makes them not want to demand their rights.”
In Thailand and across the globe, undocumented migrant workers often find themselves the victims of inhumane treatment. According to an October 2011 report by the International Organisation for Migration, “Irregular migrants are one of the groups most vulnerable to rights violations in a host state since their invisibility in society often means that they are unable to report abuse.”
The report estimated that there were about 1.4 million undocumented migrant workers in Thailand, with the majority coming from Myanmar.