Thai Labour and Human Rights Groups Call For Urgent Inquiry as Nationality Verification of Burmese Migrants Begins
On 16 Sept. 2009, the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation (SERC), the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee (TLSC) will petition the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants calling for an urgent inquiry into the commencement of a nationality verification process for Burmese migrants in Thailand. Subsequently, a set of recommendations will be submitted to the Royal Thai Government. The process, occurring both on Thai and Burmese soil, and on which the Thai Government has disseminated little information, is likely to be ineffective and places 2 million migrants at high risk of exploitation.
There are an estimated three million migrant workers currently in Thailand. The majority of these migrants are from Burma, and entered Thailand ‘illegally.’ In 2004, the Royal Thai Government (RTG) and the Burmese military junta signed a Memorandum of Understanding providing for nationality verification of these migrants so they could become ‘legal.’ The process was not implemented as the Burmese junta insisted nationality verification take place in Burma, whilst the RTG said it should take place in Thailand. The stalemate continued until late 2008 when RTG agreed for nationality verification to take place in Burma in three main border towns. The RTG then announced that no migrants would remain ‘illegally’ in Thailand after 28th February 2010, as all registered Burmese migrants must undertake nationality verification before this time, by means of a 13-stage process involving both governments, or face deportation.
In past weeks, the nationality verification process has begun. Tour buses carrying migrants to border processing centres are leaving main migrant population centres in Thailand and migrants are then crossing borders to Burma and returning at varying costs with temporary Burmese passports and visas. Information is spreading in migrant communities on these developments, but the RTG has not yet conducted public relations campaigns with migrants, NGOs or labour organisations. The only information publically disseminated is from the Burmese government about processes on its side of the border. However, private brokers are springing up and providing answers and services at unreasonably high costs.
The nationality verification process is two-track. Migrants can either submit their biographical information to brokers to get nationality verified and obtain a passport within months, or submit this information formally to employment offices and receive a slow response. The formal government costs are low (approx. 600 to 2, 100 baht/US$17- 60) but broker fees are unregulated and getting higher (starting costs approx. 7, 500 baht/US$200). In Samut Sakorn Province, with the largest Burmese migrant population in Thailand, recently officials announced to employers that the use of ‘recommended’ brokers in nationality verification processes was necessary to cope with the large number of migrants involved and to speed things up.
Certain ethnic groups, especially the Shan, are increasingly fearful of providing personal information as rumors of negative effects for their families surface once this information reaches the Burmese junta. Rumors are also spreading that Burma intends to catch political activists through the process, and Muslims are excluded. Many migrant workers are paying brokers only to report they disappear without providing services.
Sawit Keawan, SERC’s General Secretary, today said: ‘SERC, HRDF and TLSC are increasingly concerned as a result of these developments. We fear for the safety of Burmese migrants in Thailand and are disturbed at what appears to be another wave of exploitation affecting them. Nationality verification, which we view as a positive yet sensitive issue, is beginning at unreasonable costs to migrants, and just weeks after a previous registration period ended and migrants endured high costs related to this. There has been little information provided by the RTG on the processes, especially to migrants.’
Gothom Arya, HRDF’s President, adds: ‘HRDF, SERC and TLSC will call on the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants to urgently set up an inquiry into the commencement of this nationality verification process. We will also send a set of recommendations to the RTG, including a request that the RTG should continue to strongly urge the Burmese government that the process take place here in Thailand. This will reduce the unreasonable costs being borne by migrants, speed up the process, and importantly increase the safety of migrants whilst reducing unnecessary use of exploitative brokers. If the process continues as it is, it is likely to be ineffective and we fear Burmese migrants may once again become victims of exploitation, suffer increased debt bondage, and perhaps even becomes victims of trafficking as they travel with unregulated brokers to border areas.’
*SERC is a national confederation of 43 state enterprise unions in Thailand representing over 170, 000 registered members and affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). HRDF is a registered Thai Foundation working to strengthen standards on human rights, democracy and peace in Thailand. TLSC is a committee consisting of 24 labour federations, unions and NGOs campaigning on labour issues in Thailand.