Monday, 18 November 2019

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Nationality verification of Burmese migrants: A meaningful debate

The Thai Government recently reiterated its policy to formalise the status of around two million migrants from Burma working here - nationality verification (NV).

NV is apparently required because these migrants left Burma without permission and then entered Thailand “illegally.” What with an abundance of brokers assisting them, and the fact wide swathes of the Thai economy remains reliant on them, it’s easy to get in at a cost. Once registered to work “legally” in the most dangerous jobs Thailand has to offer, migrant’s status remains “illegal, pending deportation.” Refused work accident compensation, rights to ride motor cycles and travel outside a province of registration; migrants live in a grey hole where insecurity and exploitation thrives.

So something apparently needed to be done to solve this terribly unjust situation. NV means migrants become both “Burmese” and “legal” at the same time. They also receive a “temporary” passport, which magically entitles them to benefits in Thailand they were previously denied.

Since NV involves working with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), difficulties were always going to arise. While Cambodia and Laos sent diplomats to complete NV for their workers in Thailand, Burma insisted its workers return home to complete the process. NV for Burmese workers ground to a halt - only to re-awaken last year when Thailand allowed the process to be completed on Burmese soil.

Many observers, including political groups engaged in an almost five decades long political struggle against the “junta’s dictatorial rule”, sensed NV was not a magic “solution” to Thailand’s irregular migration challenges. Instead, it seemed a tad fishy. So is NV a win-win process? If not, the lives of millions of migrants are potentially at stake.

Migrants are currently sending their biographical information to the SPDC, and then travelling to Burma to complete NV. Since August, six NV centres have become fully operational on both sides of three main Burma/Thailand border crossings. Two more centers are planned. Once the process is complete, migrants return with “temporary” passports and two-year visas.

However for many, NV remains migrant’s worst nightmare and should not, at all costs, even be attempted.

Firstly, NV is potentially dangerous, especially for migrants from the plethora of ethnic groups in Burma whose communities are still at war with the junta. They are being asked to deal directly with the SPDC, which for many is a genuinely scary prospect that brings fear of persecution and imprisonment for themselves and their families.

Secondly, NV is complex and non transparent. Thailand has mounted no public awareness campaigns. Officials are simply telling migrants to complete NV before 28 February 2010 or be deported. A Burmese government leaflet is the only official information released – claiming the process is “risk free, cheap and friendly.” The reality is few migrants believe the SPDC.

Thirdly, NV is costly. The current price is 3,000 to 10, 000 baht. Brokers remain unregulated and are fleecing migrants, given someone needs to guide them through the 13-step process. The costs seem inappropriate given a previous migrant registration process just ended and migrant incomes are so low.

Not surprisingly, with such a secretive process, there has been talk of land confiscations for families of migrants attempting NV; 60 migrants from Bangkok arrested on arrival in Myawaddy and sent to Insein Prison; widespread extortion by SPDC officials; even an increased trend of migrants committing suicide to avoid the process, at least until a future life. Few can ascertain whether these “rumours” are true, but the RTG and SPDC denied them outright when they met the media in Bangkok recently.

Migrants have many serious questions about NV, but receive few answers. How is nationality verified? How long does it take? Why are Muslims excluded? What are the actual benefits? Why does Burma refuse to allow NV to take place in Thailand?  Is NV related to the 2010 Burmese elections?  No official answers. So migrants simply dismiss statements that deny the risks.

The numbers of migrants completing NV is still low - only around 2,000 of an eligible 1 million have been issued temporary passports. But for advocates of migrant rights, should we accept NV as a beneficial reality and move to discuss how it can be undertaken most effectively and safely? What are the alternatives?

Since the early 1990s, Thailand has implemented a piece-meal migrant registration policy that has neither protected migrant rights nor effectively managed migration flows. The standard procedure has been issuing yearly cabinet resolutions to allow registration of migrants for 30 days or occasionally granting an amnesty to all “aliens who sneaked into the country.” Costs are 3,800 baht for a work permit and health insurance. Often no change of employer is allowed. Due to lack of public awareness, its not rare for officials to learn about registration policies after they are being implemented, whilst migrant’s employers seem to miss the processes altogether before they end for another year.

So on balance, NV appears a more viable system for managing irregular migration in Thailand than anything from the past. It can at least potentially formalise entry and exit from the country in a way that could reduce exploitation, smuggling and even perhaps trafficking. But if a migrant’s home country is Burma, does something change?  

Of course, the root cause of the “migrants from Burma” problem is Burma itself. But until that problem can be solved, Thailand cannot deny its responsibility to regulate migrants from Burma, and support their access to rights and welfare in the most effective way it can. Activists too should share this heavy burden, right?

The RTGs new policy of NV, whatever its ulterior motives may be, should be welcomed. For it has started a meaningful debate. When faced with systematic exploitation as one of the most vulnerable workforces in the world – characterized by one country that refuses to acknowledge their benefit and another which refuses to respond for them – this debate will eventually expose the serious predicament faced by migrants from Burma currently toiling in Thailand.

These migrants are usually passive victims of a situation they were not involved in creating. To be the active subjects of intense discussion, which can eventually find a lasting solution to their sad predicament, is surely the least they deserve.

(The author Andy Hall is director of the Migrant Justice Programme for the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation)

The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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