As Thai junta talks nice, foreign migrants remain on edge

Rumors and tougher rules from Thailand's military rulers sparked the flight of 200,000 Cambodians last week. The junta now says it's acting to protect migrants, but more say they may leave. 

Heng Sinith/AP
Cambodian migrant workers get off from a Thai truck upon their arrival from Thailand at Cambodia-Thai international border gate in Poipet, Cambodia, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Thai officials insist the cross-border movement is voluntary and is not forced repatriation.

Millions of migrants in Thailand face an uncertain future even as the country's military rulers try to soften a clampdown on illegal workers.

Just days after over 200,000 Cambodian workers fled Thailand on rumors police were targeting migrants for deportation, members of other communities including workers from Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines say they are also considering leaving. 

“I’ve heard they’re not giving migrants any more stamps in their passports at the border,” says Maria, a cleaner from the Philippines who has worked in Thailand for four years coming in and out of the country on tourist visas stamped at the Cambodian border every few weeks. “If I can’t find a solution I will go home. I’m scared of what the police might do if they caught me.”

Thailand is home to an estimated 2 million migrants from across the region many of whom enter and work in Thailand illegally. They fill mostly menial jobs Thais are not interested in, including hard labor on farms or in the fishing industry, domestic work, and construction jobs. 

The junta has denied ordering raids or forcibly deporting people and says instead it plans to regulate the system to stamp out corruption and exploitation. However, there is concern the economy could suffer if any more migrants chose to leave the country or if those who have left are unable to return using legal measures.

“Thailand needs migrant workers,” says Max Tunon, who works on migrant worker issues in the great Mekong Region for the International Labor Organization. Last week he interviewed some of the Cambodians waiting at the border after fleeing Thailand on rumors of a crackdown. All of them, he says, expressed an interest in going back to their jobs in Thailand, but most do not have the money or means to get their papers processed properly. 

“Some remarked they intended to come through legal channels but it's not clear yet if Cambodia has the capacity to deal with the demand if there’s a sudden surge in applications for passports,” Mr. Tunon says.

Many may resort again to illegal ways of coming back into the country if they cannot get papers in time, says Tunon. 

Burmese flight 

In northern Thailand, a series of raids on fishing and agricultural facilities last week sparked similar panic among Burmese migrants, some of whom said they were harassed by police even though they have legal documents permitting them to work in the country. While most appear to have decided to stay in the country, unlike many in the Cambodian community who decided to flee, there were reports this week that a handful of Burmese workers were deported to the border after being detained by police.  

One Burmese construction worker told The Irrawady, an English language newspaper in Myanmar, he and his colleagues had their documents seized in a police raid in early June. Afterwards their boss denied to the police that he had any knowledge of employing them. 

“When the police raided our place, we told them we had documents. We gave them the documents,” Poe Thein said. “But when they called our employer, he refused to confirm our employment. He didn’t do anything to help us, and the police said our passports were no longer valid so we were arrested and detained for weeks.”

When they were released Mr. Poe and his colleagues left in trucks for the Myanmar border. He says he has been stopped from coming back into the country even though he has the right papers.

“I tried to cross the border this morning with an official permit, but Thai authorities stopped me,” Poe told The Irrawaddy. “I don’t know why I can’t come to Thailand, even with a legal document.” 

It's not clear why the Cambodian community chose to leave while others decided to stay put. Vuthaya Charoenpol, who works for Friends International, a charity that helps Cambodian migrants in Thailand, said it appeared to be a case of mass panic.  

“The situation moved very fast,” says Ms. Charoenpol. “Once rumors started spreading it seems everyone in the Cambodian community was worried they could be a target.”

Junta responds 

Since the exodus of Cambodian workers, the junta has moved to reassure migrants they are not encouraging people to leave. Instead, they announced plans to help more migrants register for proper documents without having to leave Thailand. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) set up by the Junta also announced a shake up of the labor ministry including setting up a foreign workers committee to address such issues. 

NCPO spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the government had identified several human trafficking rackets taking advantage of foreign workers, and promised to crackdown hard on criminals while protecting the rights of migrants to live and work in Thailand.

The moves have been welcomed by charities and other organizations working with migrants in South East Asia who have been campaigning for some time for Thailand to introduce more checks and balances into the migrant worker system. 

“If they clear up the system it will be a really good thing for the Cambodian community because it will mean people are much less vulnerable to exploitation,” says Charoenpol.

She said the move seemed to be part of a wider effort by the Junta to tackle corruption at all levels of Thai society.

Others have speculated on blogs and social media the Junta chose to target foreign workers for political reasons. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has in the past expressed his support for Thailand’s exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In January, anti-government protesters in Thailand claimed Cambodian migrants were being sent to the capital Bangkok to disrupt their demonstrations. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban even claimed Cambodians were behind several shootings of his supporters. When the army staged a coup in May there were whispers that supporters of the ousted Shinawtra family planned to set up a government in exile in Cambodia. 

The Cambodian government has denied meddling in Thailand's political affairs and last week announced it would co-operate with the Junta to help facilitate the return of workers who fled and need proper documents to return. 

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