Legal limbo leaves millions of Myanmar migrants quaking

opinion March 01, 2014 00:00

By Achara Deboonme
The Nation

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More than 100, 000 Myanmar workers in Thailand now risk exploitation, arrest and deportation, and more will fall into the same situation if Thailand and Myanmar do not act to solve a legal issue, says a non-profit rights organisation.

The Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) last week issued another statement, calling on the governments to ease rules that cover migrant workers’ stay in Thailand. 
“The Thai and Myanmar governments recently said they cannot do anything, as political chaos continues in Thailand. This issue is urgent, the deadline for workers’ legal stay already started to pass nine months ago,” MWRN said in an interview by e-mail.
Of the estimated 3 million Myanmar workers in Thailand, 100,000 have already fallen into a legal “grey zone” after their permission to stay expired in June 2013. 
According to the MWRN, about 2 million workers are in Thailand on temporary passports issued by the Myanmar government. The trouble started when their government suddenly announced that the temporary passports had to be converted to permanent ones. This hasty decision is causing great angst for workers as, reportedly, a family registration certificate and ID card is required. Many Myanmar migrants, especially those hailing from rural areas, have never had such documents. They now face a time-consuming and costly process to convert their passports, adding to the burden of charges made by labour agents.
“At this time of crisis in Thailand’s migration policy, the Thai Labour Ministry has now also announced it will implement from March 1 a law requiring collection of Bt1,000 from migrant workers’ salaries to pay into a deportation fund in case of unlawful overstay and deportation,” MWRN said, calling this discriminative, as the law will only apply to Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia nationals.
“It’s impossible to give good advice [to workers] as we don’t know the policy, no one does. We just recommend that workers be wary of corrupt officials seeking to extort money from them and do not believe employers, agents or brokers who promise them a solution to their desperate situation – there is currently no policy to help them.”
The MWRN has offered five proposals as a solution to this chaos. 
First, Myanmar workers should be able to renew or extend existing temporary national verification (NV) passports and should not be forced to apply for a permanent Myanmar passport. 
Second, procedures for extension of stay permission beyond four years and passport renewal or extension should be transparent and accessible for employers and migrants to navigate without compulsory use of expensive and unregulated brokers or agents.
Third, centres for processing visa extensions and passport renewal or extension should open close to migrant populations and not only in risky border areas.
Fourth, no workers whose visas have expired should be fined for overstay under the current policy vacuum.
Fifth, the policy requiring a Bt1,000 deposit towards a deportation fund should be revoked. 
“Currently procedures for workers to remain in Thailand beyond four years and for issuance, extension or renewal of temporary or permanent passports remain unclear,” the MWRN also noted.
Action on this issue is urgent if Thailand and Myanmar want to prevent millions of migrant workers being left prey to unscrupulous officials, employers and agents.