Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 19, 2022
The Thai government needs to put in place a holistic and inclusive migration policy to support the migrants entering and residing in their territory
Need for a migration policy in Thailand In an increasingly globalised world, the need for migrant workers within the Southeast Asian region has rocketed. This is especially true for Thailand. Owing to Thailand’s economic growth over the last few decades, it has progressed into a regional migration hub. The migrant workers from neighbouring countries, particularly from Myanmar, and a considerable section from Cambodia, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic permits Bangkok to maintain its economic growth. Statistically, 80 percent of immigrants employed in Thailand’s agricultural, fishing, and manufacturing sectors belong from Myanmar. According Ministry of Labour, Thailand 2022, out of the 10 percent of Myanmar’s labour force working overseas, approximately 1.5 million Myanmar migrant workers are employed in Thailand and Malaysia. Thus, the economies of Bangkok and Naypyidaw are deeply contingent on migrant workers for their labour and remittances. Cross-border migration between the two nations has been prevalent since the 1980s. Thailand’s economic growth coupled with labour deficiency became pull factors attracting opportunities for workers from the neighbouring countries. Whereas physical proximity, poor economic conditions, and political instability in Myanmar became the subsequent push factors, prompting thousands of its unskilled working population to move to Thailand in hopes of finding a stable and secure environment. Thailand shares 2,202 kilometers porous border with Myanmar. The migrants are mostly from the bordering regions of Mon State, Kayin State, Shan State, and Tanintharyi Region. All permanent checkpoints can be accessed by road, except the Ranong–Kawthaung checkpoint which can be accessed only by boat. However, there are several unofficial border checkpoints, especially near Mae Sot from where undocumented migration ensues.

Agreements with Myanmar

Thailand initially had no agreement with the Myanmar government toward the migrants working in their nation. In 1992, migrants from Myanmar were only permitted to work in four provinces of Thailand without any form of agreement or procedure. Eventually, in 2003 a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Employment of Workers (MoU) was signed between the Government of Myanmar and Thailand to register unskilled labourers working in Thailand formally which allowed them to have two-year work permits in more provinces. This MoU came into effect after 2009 and was subsequently replaced by a new MoU in 2016. The new MoU focused on irregular migration, the repatriation process, and the recruitment of migrants but it significantly ignored the human rights situation and protection of the migrant workers. On June 2017, the Management of Foreign Workers Employment was declared by the Thai government to forfeit the hiring of unregistered migrant workers. This news prompted approximately 60,000 workers to return to Myanmar. The Thai government immediately revised the provisions and dates for this law to be enforced in 2018. The revised version also needed companies to recruit migrant workers exclusively through the MOU signed with Myanmar in 2003. However, it misses the important component of thousands of unregistered workers currently working in a difficult working environment. The pandemic and the subsequent coup in Myanmar have increased the number of people seeking work and asylum in Thailand. Although suspended during 2020 due to the pandemic, regular labour migration to Thailand via the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was resumed in May 2022. Since then and up to 30 June, 2,500 workers have migrated to Thailand through two border crossings at Myawaddy in Kayin State and Kaw Thaung in the Tanintharyi region.

Myanmar nationals fleeing political instability and subsequent war post-coup have been entering Thailand in hopes to find security. The nation needs to find avenues to integrate the hapless people.

But Myanmar nationals fleeing political instability and subsequent war post-coup have been entering Thailand in hopes to find security. The Thai government is perplexed to find an appropriate way to deal with the situation and has been busy repatriating those it cannot accommodate in its already crowded camps. Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and lacks an appropriate policy to address this situation. However, the nation has passed the Anti-Torture Law better known as the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act B.E.2565 (2022). This new act includes a provision of the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forced return of a person to a country where they may face torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Thus, the nation needs to find avenues to integrate the hapless people; one way will be to divert them into its labour requirements. Attempts have been made to bring irregular migrants under the ‘regular migrant’ umbrella through governance mechanisms. However, some gaps remain.

Systemic issues

Due to the tedious nature of the National Verification (NV) and registration and reregistration which are complex, time-consuming, and overpriced, it becomes convenient for the migrants to work without registering. Many of the people migrating from Myanmar depend on middlemen to furnish the required documents to initiate the process of migration through proper channels. This makes the procedure more expensive and increases susceptibility to fraud. It is also important to note that being registered with a work permit is undermined by the fact that a migrant’s registration status is connected to the employer without any consent or choice. Employers are difficult to change. In some cases, the recruiters pay the registration fees of the migrants thus creating a form of debt bondage that gives some level of authority to the former to withhold essential documents, travel permissions, and work permits. The migrants are paid less, accompanied by degrading treatment. Thailand has not ratified Conventions 87 or 98 of the International Labour Organisation whereby the migrant workers do not have the right to form unions. The Thai government validates its apprehension and reservation to unionisation by migrants from Myanmar by citing unspecified “threats to national security”. While civil organisations are focusing on these elements and redressal mechanisms, however, they are considered unlawful by the Thai government machinery. The migrants who are not registered or have fallen out of the system are regarded as illegal and thus, can be arrested, and deported anytime. This increases vulnerability as they are easily susceptible to abuses by law enforcement agencies. Given the demand of the economy along with the need for a migrant population, the Thai government needs to put in place a holistic and inclusive migration policy to support the migrants entering and residing in their territory. The process of policy formulation will need to include the perspective of migrants to ensure the creation of a strong and inclusive framework.

The process of policy formulation will need to include the perspective of migrants to ensure the creation of a strong and inclusive framework.

Capacity building will remain essential for workers both in formal and informal sectors handling the migration process. To address corruption among officials, mechanisms need to be placed to flag irregular financial statements. There needs enhancement for interagency coordination. Moreover, a robust legal machinery readily accessible and impartial to the needs of the migrant population will be critical. Awareness campaigns about labour rights among migrants in Thailand and Myanmar will be vital to safeguard them from treacherous middle men. While the government has extended the stay of the registered and unregistered migrants till 2025, it is imperative to integrate the migration and labour migration issues into the strategic framework to achieve long-term economic growth in Thailand.
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Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee

Sreeparna Banerjee is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme.

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