"Invisible" Burmese migrants face poverty and deportation

Charm Tong does not remember fleeing into Thailand - she was only six years old when her parents took her across the border from Myanmar.

Her home in Shan State - Myanmar's largest region - was a conflict zone, with government troops battling rebels of the Shan State Army.

Tong was educated in northern Thailand at a Catholic orphanage. She speaks English, Thai, Chinese and Burmese, and now in her mid-20s, runs a school in Thailand that offers counselling, education and support to other migrants.

Tong’s story is happier than many of at least a million people who left Myanmar for Thailand.

"[Migrants] can be deported at any time because they have no documents," said Tong. "It is a difficult life for them - they have to live in hiding.”

The Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP), a Thai NGO, estimates that 1.5 to 2 million Burmese live in Thailand.

The Thai government considers most to be economic migrants, rather than political refugees, and requires them to obtain registration cards to stay legally. In practice, only a small number can afford the registration fees or produce the necessary documentation, so their lives are a constant battle to avoid government detection, according to MAP. Many live and work illegally and have no access to education, healthcare or basic services.

According to Tong, some live in the forests near the border in makeshift settlements to avoid police detection.

Refugee status

However, the fear of violence, and not just the prospect of jobs and opportunity, drove many Burmese into Thailand, according to a report by Tufts University, Invisible in Thailand. It stated that a significant number of Burmese migrants should be classified as refugees and granted asylum.

''Many Burmese have credible, well-founded fears of persecution…The Thai government, however, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge international legal standards governing refugees.''

"Many Burmese have credible, well-founded fears of persecution …The Thai government, however, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge international legal standards governing refugees," stated the report, produced with the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

More than 1,700 migrants in three locations near the border were interviewed and the report found that many should be entitled to refugee status.

"Only a small number of Burmese who warrant refugee status and attendant services actually receive any aid or protection from the Thai government or international agencies," stated the report.

Migrants were unwilling to talk about possible political reasons for their departure. “Respondents would not answer questions about their political views or specific activities in Burma because they worried that their families would get into trouble.”

Lack of rights

"The situation of Burmese migrants in Thailand is pretty abysmal," said David Mathieson, a New York-based consultant for Human Rights Watch. "Only one-quarter to one-third are registered [with the Thai government] and even for the registered ones, there is a limit to what they can do," he said.


Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
A Myanmar family in Mae Sot, Thailand. More than a million Myanmar migrants live in Thailand, usually without legal papers and having to live and work in secret

According to Jackie Pollack, director of MAP, unregistered Burmese effectively have no access to healthcare, education or protection under Thai law. Many are forced to work in sweatshops, or in high-risk jobs on construction sites and fishing boats. It was not uncommon for employers to simply refuse to pay wages, or to subject them to workplace abuse.

Even documented workers were susceptible as employers often confiscated their passports and registration papers, said Pollack. Undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. "If they report [workplace] violations, they are arrested and deported for being in Thailand illegally."

The International Labour Organisation estimates that 1.8 million registered and non-registered migrants live in Thailand, with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reporting another 123,000 recognised refugees living in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Tong told IRIN: "We want our friends in Thailand to understand the difficulties that people from Myanmar are facing … because if they understood this, we know they would help."

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See also: Deaths of Myanmar workers highlight migrant labour problems