Parallels with Rohingya crisis as workers flee from Thailand

Myanmar faces challenges at its borders. The Rohingya people remain marginalised. Workers forced to return from Thailand receive assistance from Myanmar’s government.

By John Pennington

The Rohingya crisis continues. Refugees cannot return to Myanmar, the country of their birth. Others feel they have no choice but to leave.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of workers – legal and illegal – are arriving from Thailand. At the border, many of the returning workers went through scrutineering checks. Officials checked to make sure they had the correct documents. Officials checked to see if the workers had committed crimes or terrorism offences.

The Myanmar government agreed to welcome back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Onlookers viewed the commitment with scepticism. Aid agencies denounced plans for checkpoints to verify refugees’ papers. Many Rohingya would likely refuse to return. Other refugees no longer have – or never had – the required documents.

Thailand’s clampdown on illegal immigrants pushed Myanmar’s workers to return home.

Earlier this year, Thailand began to clamp down hard on illegal immigrants. The Thai government wants to expel all illegal immigrants by 2018. It amended the foreign labour laws. It imposed harsh fines and penalties on companies found employing foreigners illegally. As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers left the country.

There were an estimated three million migrant workers – at least – in Thailand. An estimated 300,000 of those were illegals. The Thai government claimed illegal immigrants committed crimes, damaging the country’s image.

Anti-immigration sentiment is common to both Myanmar and Thailand

The strength of anti-immigration feeling is on the rise. “There seems to be a surge of national sentiment in Thai immigration policy claiming migrants…are taking jobs that are reserved for Thai nationals,” said Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Meanwhile, Thailand’s rising anti-immigrant outlook is not unique. Myanmar claims the Rohingya people are illegal immigrants. They have no right to statehood. Myanmar blamed the Rohingya crisis on terrorists.

Picture from Global New Light to Myanmar

Thailand could learn from how Myanmar processes workers

Not all workers heading to Thailand went with the intention to work illegally. Brokers on the border defrauded them. The brokers overcharged the immigrants and then did not provide correct documentation.

Thailand might learn from the checks Myanmar set up for its returning workers. Officials could run a similar process as workers enter Thailand. The government should regulate the brokers. By implementing such measures, the government could curb the numbers of illegal immigrants.

As the workers decided to leave Thailand, they faced more problems. Some legal workers reportedly had to bribe their way out of the country. “Myanmar’s illegal workers can return home without being arrested. But, some workers are using brokers who are charging fees because they are afraid of being arrested, and some don’t know that they can go back home freely,” confirmed U Aung Kyaw, Migrant Workers Rights Network.

Thailand should also clamp down on brokers and officials

The state could better focus its attempts to root out this illicit behaviour. The Thai government must take firmer action against the brokers and officials.

Even Myanmar’s government urges its migrants not to trust brokers. The workers often have little choice. They do not speak enough Thai to get documents and safe passage on their own.

Critics argue that as a result of the new laws, smuggling and corruption may increase. For example, migrants may turn to smugglers to avoid the 20,000 baht (US$615.2) fee for a work permit. Business owners may employ illegal workers if employing legal workers is too expensive.

Thailand’s actions caused problems for both countries

By stigmatising migrant workers, Thailand caused both itself and Myanmar problems. Myanmese workers earn more from taking these jobs in Thailand than they do from working at home.

According to Tanit Sorat, vice chairman of the Employers’ Confederation of Thailand, “the private sector is in shock”. Furthermore, he predicted a labour shortage due to the exodus of legal and illegal workers.

Myanmar must now deal with another group of people amassing at its borders. The government could exploit the situation to their advantage. The government could claim it cannot process both returning workers and the Rohingya. It would prioritise the workers.

Thailand has thus branded many of its migrant workers as illegals. Both governments are guilty of oversimplifying and misrepresenting their countries’ problems. Their efforts to deal with them may also prove divisive.

Neither Myanmar nor Thailand have acted with credit

It is easy to see that Myanmar’s approach is hypocritical. The government set up shelters for its returning workers. The workers received food and medical treatment. Bangladesh acted similarly when the Rohingya crossed into their country. Bangladesh has arguably offered the Rohingya more support than Myanmar.

In fact, neither Myanmar nor Thailand can be proud of their actions. HRW criticised Thailand’s application of the new law and its effects. “Thailand needs laws that protect the rights of migrant workers – not that instil fear and set off mass flight,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia Director.

Change a few words, and he could be talking about the Rohingya crisis. These two situations are very different. At their heart lie very similar issues. In Thailand, as in Myanmar, how the government treats you depends on your ethnicity.