Bangkok (AsiaNews/ÉdA) – Thailand is one of the largest migratory hubs in all of Southeast Asia.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Thailand is home to some 4-5 million foreign workers, plus a million illegal migrants, especially from Myanmar.
The latter’s situation and that of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and Laotians became very uncertain as of 1st January 2018, when the suspension of a coercive decree on undocumented workers was lifted.
The measure, issued by Thailand’s military junta on 23 June, was strongly criticised by civil society groups, including the Migration Working Group (MWG) and the Mekong Migration Network (MMN).
Since the start of the year, Thai police have carried out several raids in Nonthaburi, west of Bangkok, arresting about 200 Myanmar migrant workers. The new law provides for severe penalties for both employers and undocumented workers.
Fr John Murray heads a 15-member team for the National Catholic Migration Commission (NCMC), which comes under Caritas Thailand.
For the clergyman, it is difficult, with so few means, “to solve all the problems of migrants”. Nevertheless, “we are making a contribution in the name of the Church”.
The NCMC is involved in a number projects to help migrant workers, including an information campaign on the dangers of human trafficking as well as language (English and Thai) courses and professional training.
The Commission has also joined initiatives to raise awareness among migrants about the importance of their right of access to certain public services, particularly in the area of healthcare.
“To do this, they have to get a regular work permit, so the best way to help them from our point of view is to help them register with the authorities,” the priest said.
For Fr Murray, “This bill is ill-conceived. It criminalises migrant workers and makes them live in fear. On the other hand, I am not at all sure of its effectiveness in the fight against human trafficking.”
This decree was largely adopted to improve Thailand’s position in the US classification on human trafficking, which can limit US assistance.
Since the decree was announced, tens of thousands of people from Myanmar but also from Cambodia and, to a lesser extent, Laos have left, of their free will or forced, for their native country frightened by the sanctions of the Thai government.
According to Myanmar’s Home Affairs Ministry, 155,169 illegal Myanmar workers, including 66,980 women, came home between 23 June and early December.
Facing the exodus of workers and the law’s negative impact on the economy, Thailand’s military government suspended the decree for 180 days on 29 June, to give illegal Myanmar migrants still in Thailand time to regularise their position.
Six centres were set up across the country where Myanmar workers could obtain an “identity certificate” issued by Myanmar officials, and then a visa and work permit issued by Thai authorities. However, only a fraction of the 800,000 undocumented workers were able to register.
Naypyitaw and Bangkok have signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a legal process for Myanmar workers to legally arrive in Thailand. To this end, workers have to go through agencies recognised by the Myanmar government and be accepted, from the start, by a specific employer in Thailand.