Thousands of migrant workers from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar face possible deportation from Thailand unless they register their nationality this weekend.
Under a nationality verification (NV) scheme, migrants must register by 28 February for their work permits to be extended.
Thailand is a magnet for migrants seeking economic opportunities and the government says the process will give migrant workers legal status and better protect them from exploitative labour practices, including human trafficking and other rights violations.
However officials admit that just 500,000 people have applied to take part in the NV process so far.
And with threats of immediate deportation for those who do not comply, rights activists are worried.
“We support the policy as a concept, but the way in which that concept has been applied is simply terrible,” Andy Hall, director of the Migrant Justice Programme at the Human Rights and Development Foundation, said during a public discussion on the issue on 24 February in Bangkok.
“We have to give credit to the government for trying to sort out the illegal migration problem in Thailand, but we think the nationality verification policy has failed and is failing.”
According to the Thai Department of Employment, there are some 1.3 million legal migrant workers in the kingdom.
In addition, an estimated two million are irregular migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), mainly from Myanmar.
Jackie Pollock, director of the MAP Foundation, a Thai NGO that assists migrants, warned that mass deportations of Burmese could have serious humanitarian consequences.
“There is a high likelihood the Burmese regime would close the border to stop them, so the migrants would be stuck in no man’s land because Thailand doesn’t want them either,” Pollock told IRIN.
|Thailand has proven a natural magnet for labour migration in the region|
“That’s when they start hiding out in fields and jungles,” she said, citing previous mass deportations in the late 1990s where NGOs were left to assist Burmese migrants stranded along the border.
Verification process questioned
Under the NV process, applicants are required to submit information, including their name, age and place of birth, both to the Thai government and to their home country, to confirm their identity.
So far, most of those who have complied come from Cambodia and Laos, whose governments have been sending representatives to areas where their citizens live and work in Thailand to help register them.
But the process is proving problematic for Burmese migrants, whose government only agreed late last year to set up three areas near the border with Myanmar where Burmese workers in Thailand could have their documents processed.
Before then, they were expected to travel back to their home provinces.
However, according to NGOs working with Burmese migrants, many are reluctant to provide details to the Myanmar authorities for fear their families back home could be forced to pay additional taxes and subject to other forms of pressure.
“Even if the Burmese government doesn’t have a policy to do bad things with that information now, they are worried that might change in the future,” said Hall.
The process is also expensive, with NGOs claiming each worker has to pay up to US$300 to brokers to help with the paperwork - the equivalent of several months’ wages.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on migrant worker abuses launched this week, workers are already forced to pay up to $150 annually to brokers to renew their work permits, visas and health insurance.
The report also outlined the abuses that migrant workers allegedly suffer, including extortion, beatings and even extra-judicial killing, at the hands of Thai police and their employers.
The prospect of mass deportations was criticized by the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants, Jorge Bustamante, who said the NV process would increase the vulnerability of irregular migrants in Thailand.
"Among the groups who may potentially be deported, there may be some who may be in need of international protection and should not be returned to the country of origin,” warned Bustamante in an 18 February statement.
"If pursued, the threats of mass expulsion will result in unprecedented human suffering and will definitely breach fundamental human rights obligations," he warned.
The Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women also warned that the threat of mass deportations would increase the risk of trafficking.
“Restrictive migration policies are one of the main causes of trafficking,” it said in a 23 February statement. “If working-class migrants are not able to access legal or safe migration and labour channels, third party agents become one of their only options to access opportunities abroad.”