Friday, April 2, 2010

Migrant warning for Malaysia, Thailand

By Brian McCartan

BANGKOK - Thailand and Malaysia have been singled out again in recent human rights reports for their systematic and unchecked exploitation of their large migrant worker populations. While both countries depend on foreign workers for economic growth and cost competitiveness, neither has taken sufficient steps to curb widespread abuses.

Thailand announced in 2008 for reasons of national security that its 1.3 million registered migrants would have to verify their nationality with officials from their own government, which would then qualify them for a temporary passport and a Thailand-issued work permit. Monitoring groups estimate there are more than two

million migrants in Thailand, with most arriving from neighboring and poorer Myanmar.

The National Verification Process was intended to provide migrants with legal status to live and work in Thailand for up to two years at a time for a period not exceeding four years. Workers would also receive certain rights, including access to accident compensation and the ability to travel within Thailand, through the process.

For Cambodian and Lao migrants, the process was facilitated by government representatives who travelled to Thai work sites to assist with registering their nationals. For migrant workers from Myanmar, which account for just over one million of the official 1.3 million total, the process required them to travel across the border to employment offices at Myawaddy, Tachilek and Kawthaung for registration.

In addition to the expense of travelling from their work places to the border, many Myanmar workers fear their own government and are reluctant to provide detailed personal background information to officials on concern they might cause problems for family members back home. Myanmar's deputy minister for foreign affairs has said that the government planned to issue 1.2 million passports for workers in Thailand by February 2012.

About 850,000 migrants registered by the Thai government's March 2 deadline, but an estimated one million more undocumented workers from Myanmar failed to register, according to migrant rights groups. Human rights advocates said the failure of workers to register was due to a lack of publicity about the process and doubt among migrants that registration would bring any improvements to their working conditions.

Deportations began shortly after the deadline, with roundups of migrants in Thailand reported in the northeastern province of Buriram, in the fish and shrimp processing center of Mahachai in central Samut Sakhon province, and in the western border town of Mae Sot. The deportations have so far been much smaller than rights groups feared, a reflection some believe of the Thai government's attention to street protests rather than a lack of will.

Whether registered or not, migrants work in difficult, dangerous and low-paying jobs that most Thais no longer want to do. Most are involved in the shrimp peeling and fishery industry, agriculture, fruit picking, garment industries, construction and domestic work.

Their presence is pervasive enough that some question how great the cost would be to the Thai economy should the migrants be deported en masse. Many businesses have become accustomed to the cheap labor that they rely on to maintain their competitive edge, both in local and international markets.

Labor advocates argue that the migrants should be treated as people rather than investments. Instead of issuing threats and allowing abuses by employers and authorities to go unpunished, the government should assure them the same legal treatment and rights enjoyed by Thai workers, including payment of minimum wages and disability benefits.

Legal and illegal migrants are the frequent targets of abuse in Thailand. Human rights groups say police, immigration authorities, local officials and politicians are all involved in abuses ranging from physical abuse, sexual harassment and rape, abductions, arbitrary detention, death threats, intimidation, extortion and sometimes murder. Migrants are often afraid to report abuses and claim that even when they do so, the police rarely investigate their complaints.

Without guarantees to prevent these abuses, rights advocates say, there is nothing to stop employers from flaunting the new rules. They predict that employers will continue to pay below minimum wages and will likely confiscate their workers' new temporary passports, as they have done with registration cards for the past decade - especially since the passports provide for greater mobility to change work places.

Malaysia has also come under fire for its poor treatment of migrants. Last week Amnesty International released a report accusing employers and police of exploiting migrant workers through forced labor, arbitrary arrests, extortion, denied wages and unfair dismissal.

An estimated 2 million foreign workers live in Malaysia, representing around one in every five workers in the country. Many come from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam, among other countries. As in Thailand, they often find jobs in areas where Malaysians are reluctant to work, especially in construction, manufacturing and agriculture, and as domestic help. Malaysia has since the 1970s relied heavily on foreign workers to achieve its policy of rapid industrialization.

Amnesty claims that while in principle Malaysia's labor laws should cover migrants, in practice they are rarely enforced. The system forces migrant workers to rely heavily on their employers and recruiting brokers, which offers them few safeguards. Employers and agents often confiscate passports, and workers who chose to leave an employer have their work permits revoked and lose all legal status, making them easy targets for arrest and detention.

The rights group also claims that police and members of the paramilitary People's Volunteer Corps regularly target migrants for extortion and ill-treatment. The effective criminalization of migration in Malaysia serves only to encourage bad behavior. According to Amnesty's report, "large-scale public round-ups in markets and on city streets, and indiscriminate, warrantless raids on private dwellings in poorer neighborhoods send the message that being poor and foreign - regardless of immigration status - is automatically suspicious."

A nationwide crackdown on illegal migrant workers began in Malaysia on February 14. Hundreds of workers were arrested and reports from media groups in Malaysia and Thailand indicate that police often ignored legal travel documents during the arrests, although people were later released if their paperwork was in order.

Detainees were sent to camps for illegal workers. Conditions in one site, at Lenggeng, were so bad due to overcrowding that 1,400 detainees began a hunger strike on February 22, demanding to see a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The situation was defused two days later when 106 Myanmar migrants were taken out of the camp by UNHCR after being recognized as refugees.

Corrupt immigration and security officials were accused last year of working together with trafficking gangs in Thailand to sell workers rather than simply deport them across the border. From there, the migrants must pay large ransoms to be able to return to Malaysia. Malaysia was given a Tier 3 designation - the worst category - in the US State Department's 2009 human trafficking report for failure to comply with minimum standards for combating human trafficking or taking significant steps to do so.

Malaysia claims it does not systematically exploit workers. However, statements such as those made by the home minister in February carry ominous overtones. Hishammuddin Hussein told the national press that authorities hoped to create an atmosphere where illegal migrants would "feel afraid and threatened, and prepared to leave the country immediately."

Rights groups said at the time that this type of language simply gives the police freedom to carry out random raids on migrants with little fear of repercussion.

In both Thailand and Malaysia, refugees have also run afoul of migrant policies.

No refuge
Malaysia, like Thailand, has not signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees nor its 1967 protocol, and makes little distinction between refugees and migrants. There are currently 136,519 Myanmar refugees in Thailand according to figures from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an organization that coordinates humanitarian relief to refugee camps.

Thailand's migrant population is much bigger, numbering around 1.3 million, with most hailing from Myanmar. Human rights and migrant protection groups say many of the migrants have fled ongoing insurgency in Myanmar, human rights abuses perpetuated by the government, or the chronic mismanagement of the economy that has turned the country into one of the poorest.

In Thailand, many refugees choose to seek work rather than stay in the refugee camps dotted along the border. In Malaysia, there are no camps and asylum seekers are forced to seek work in order to survive, blurring the line between refugee and migrant worker.

The issue grabbed headlines last year when the Thai navy allegedly forced Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar back to sea on rickety boats after they had landed in Thailand. The government claimed the Rohingya were economic migrants, while others say that their circumstances means they should have been considered refugees.

Rights groups alleged this was not an isolated incident and that many other Rohingya's have perished after being blocked entry to Thailand.

In December, after years of threats and despite pleas by several governments and the United Nations, 4,371 Hmong refugees were forcibly repatriated to Laos from a camp in Thailand's Petchabun province and another 158 from an immigration detention center in Nong Khai. Thailand said both groups were illegal migrants and not refugees.

While this may have been accurate in most cases, some of the Hmong had already been given "person of concern" status by the UNHCR and others, say rights groups, would have qualified if a proper screening process was carried out.

The Lao government claims the returnees have been well treated and no longer wish to resettle in third countries, but not everyone is convinced. A visit on March 26 to one of the resettlement sites by diplomats and foreign journalists was perceived as being stage-managed by the regime. Despite this several returnees were able to covey to the visitors their desire to go abroad, putting into question the Lao government's claims.

According to Amnesty International, at least 90,000 and maybe as many as 170,000 refugees are currently in Malaysia, mostly from Myanmar and the Philippines. Because no distinction is made in Malaysian law between migrants and refugees, the result is that asylum seekers can be arrested, detained and prosecuted for immigration offenses, including deportation back to their countries.

Unlike migrants who often times can return home, refugees are especially vulnerable to exploitation by employers and security officials due to their need to avoid deportation. In mid-March, 93 Rohingya men from Myanmar were arrested off the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi and detained by immigration authorities.

The group had previously been intercepted by the Thai navy, which after learning they were headed to Malaysia rather than Thailand gave them food and other supplies to complete your voyage.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at