BANGKOK - More than one million migrants in Thailand face possible deportation and further abuse if they fail to meet a deadline this week to register with authorities, a rights watchdog said Tuesday.
Thailand has ordered all citizens from neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to register and verify their nationality by Sunday or risk deportation, as part of an ongoing clampdown on immigration.
But Human Rights Watch said the ultimatum will force an already vulnerable community to endure further abuse at the hands of Thai authorities and employers who they say regularly exploit migrant workers with impunity.
"Millions of migrants living in Thailand have been subjected to various forms of abuse ranging from extrajudicial killings to torture, arbitrary arrest, extortion...," Sunai Phasuk, the New York-based group's Thailand expert, said at a press conference to launch a report on the deadline.
"Migrant workers need to be seen as human beings, not simply as assets."
Some 200,000 of an estimated 1.3 million migrants in Thailand have begun the registration process, and so far 45,000 have completed it, said HRW, quoting official figures.
The watchdog said registration in theory gives migrants a temporary passport and legal footing in Thailand, but unscrupulous employers routinely confiscate such documents.
Officials also extort money from migrants by threatening deportation and arrest unless bribes are paid, with killings and beatings often going unreported, the 124-page report said.
HRW urged the Thai government to postpone the registration process and enforce labor protections for workers.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has so far bowed to domestic opinion by maintaining a tough stance on immigration, but he has insisted the government will use a rights-led approach.
Abhisit has failed to publicly revoke a series of provincial laws which restrict movement by migrants, banning them from travelling by motorcycle or using mobile phones and laying down curfews.
Thailand, which is seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, has been heavily criticized in recent months for its crackdowns on migrants from neighboring Laos and Myanmar.
In December Bangkok sparked outrage when it defied global criticism and used troops to repatriate about 4,500 ethnic Hmong from camps on the border with communist Laos, including 158 recognized as refugees by the United Nations.
Earlier last year hundreds of ethnic Rohingya migrants from Myanmar were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters after being pushed out to sea in rickety boats by the Thai military.