Bangkok, 22 March 2013 — Last month Thailand's estimated two million irregular migrant workers were granted a four-month extension, until April 2013, for work permits as they wait for their national governments to verify their nationalities.
Although this is a welcome step as a temporary measure, after the new deadline passes, irregular migrants will face the same risks of arrest and deportation as they do currently, according to JRS Thailand Migrant Outreach Officer, Kohnwilai Teppunkoonngam.
Unless there is a societal shift in the way migrants and refugees are viewed in host societies, like Thailand, it becomes very difficult to guarantee the protection of those most in need. This is the experience of JRS teams in Mae Sot – where forced migrants from Burma comprise 70 percent of the population – whose work includes advocacy, training on labour rights and support for livelihood activities.
"In our accompaniment we help migrants make their stories visible. It is a way of raising their concerns, and strengthening their voices", said JRS Asia Pacific Director, Bambang Sipayung SJ.
After April, undocumented migrant workers already in Thailand may be unable to register as the deadline is unlikely to be extended again. Instead, the government plans to recruit new workers directly from Laos, Cambodia and Burma, under bilateral agreements signed between 2002 and 2003, according to Teppunkoonngam.
The nuts and bolts. In the past, nationality verification – which provides migrants with a temporary passport allowing for greater freedom of movement and legal rights – has been a costly exercise. According to local Thai news sources, migrants paid up to 15,000 baht (500 US dollars) to brokers, when their average daily wage is less than 300 baht.
In 2011, many migrants failed to register before the initial deadline due to poor public awareness or understanding of the complicated, bureaucratic procedure, according to Andy Hall, a researcher at Mahidol University's Migration Centre based in Nakhon Pathom province.
But in late February, the Thai government announced the opening of several one-stop service centres for nationality verification throughout the country. Moreover, the cost of the registration has been reduced to 9,000 baht, making the process more affordable and accessible.
"The one-stop centres may make nationality verification much easier for the migrants", said Teppunkoonngam, who added that more permanent measures need to be put in place to allow on-going registration.
Migrant work undervalued. In the past two decades, Thailand has come under increasing scrutiny for policies that fail to protect irregular migrant workers from exploitation and abuse.
Despite their enormous contribution to annual GDP growth, an estimated four percent, unaffordable registration costs and a lack of enforcement of labour protection standards leaves migrant workers vulnerable.
"Framing human beings as cheap migrant labour reduces their worth solely to economic development or worse, a source of profit", said Fr Sipayung.
Roughly 300,000 are currently undergoing registration, but an estimated two million more migrants remain outside of the process, according to MAP Foundation, a Chiang Mai based advocacy NGO.
Debt bondage. Under the previous regularisation processes, migrants able to save half their daily earnings would need at least five months before being able to afford the registration costs. This is one of many reasons why numerous irregular migrant workers failed to register in 2011.
These highly inflated costs force migrants to get heavily into debt. Unable to repay these debts migrants are made vulnerable to debt bondage and other illegal forms of exploitation.
"Although the one-stop centres improve access to nationality verification in the short-term, closing this door permanently, instead of leaving both doors open, may not be a long term solution", said Teppunkoonngam, who also recommends that Thailand sign on to the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer