Migrant warning for Malaysia,
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - Thailand and Malaysia have been singled out again in recent human
rights reports for their systematic and unchecked exploitation of their large
migrant worker populations. While both countries depend on foreign workers for
economic growth and cost competitiveness, neither has taken sufficient steps to
curb widespread abuses.
Thailand announced in 2008 for reasons of national security that its 1.3
million registered migrants would have to verify their nationality with
officials from their own government, which would then qualify them for a
temporary passport and a Thailand-issued work permit. Monitoring groups
estimate there are more than two
million migrants in Thailand, with most arriving from neighboring and poorer
The National Verification Process was intended to provide migrants with legal
status to live and work in Thailand for up to two years at a time for a period
not exceeding four years. Workers would also receive certain rights, including
access to accident compensation and the ability to travel within Thailand,
through the process.
For Cambodian and Lao migrants, the process was facilitated by government
representatives who travelled to Thai work sites to assist with registering
their nationals. For migrant workers from Myanmar, which account for just over
one million of the official 1.3 million total, the process required them to
travel across the border to employment offices at Myawaddy, Tachilek and
Kawthaung for registration.
In addition to the expense of travelling from their work places to the border,
many Myanmar workers fear their own government and are reluctant to provide
detailed personal background information to officials on concern they might
cause problems for family members back home. Myanmar's deputy minister for
foreign affairs has said that the government planned to issue 1.2 million
passports for workers in Thailand by February 2012.
About 850,000 migrants registered by the Thai government's March 2 deadline,
but an estimated one million more undocumented workers from Myanmar failed to
register, according to migrant rights groups. Human rights advocates said the
failure of workers to register was due to a lack of publicity about the process
and doubt among migrants that registration would bring any improvements to
their working conditions.
Deportations began shortly after the deadline, with roundups of migrants in
Thailand reported in the northeastern province of Buriram, in the fish and
shrimp processing center of Mahachai in central Samut Sakhon province, and in
the western border town of Mae Sot. The deportations have so far been much
smaller than rights groups feared, a reflection some believe of the Thai
government's attention to street protests rather than a lack of will.
Whether registered or not, migrants work in difficult, dangerous and low-paying
jobs that most Thais no longer want to do. Most are involved in the shrimp
peeling and fishery industry, agriculture, fruit picking, garment industries,
construction and domestic work.
Their presence is pervasive enough that some question how great the cost would
be to the Thai economy should the migrants be deported en masse. Many
businesses have become accustomed to the cheap labor that they rely on to
maintain their competitive edge, both in local and international markets.
Labor advocates argue that the migrants should be treated as people rather than
investments. Instead of issuing threats and allowing abuses by employers and
authorities to go unpunished, the government should assure them the same legal
treatment and rights enjoyed by Thai workers, including payment of minimum
wages and disability benefits.
Legal and illegal migrants are the frequent targets of abuse in Thailand. Human
rights groups say police, immigration authorities, local officials and
politicians are all involved in abuses ranging from physical abuse, sexual
harassment and rape, abductions, arbitrary detention, death threats,
intimidation, extortion and sometimes murder. Migrants are often afraid to
report abuses and claim that even when they do so, the police rarely
investigate their complaints.
Without guarantees to prevent these abuses, rights advocates say, there is
nothing to stop employers from flaunting the new rules. They predict that
employers will continue to pay below minimum wages and will likely confiscate
their workers' new temporary passports, as they have done with registration
cards for the past decade - especially since the passports provide for greater
mobility to change work places.
Malaysia has also come under fire for its poor treatment of migrants. Last week
Amnesty International released a report accusing employers and police of
exploiting migrant workers through forced labor, arbitrary arrests, extortion,
denied wages and unfair dismissal.
An estimated 2 million foreign workers live in Malaysia, representing around
one in every five workers in the country. Many come from Myanmar, Bangladesh,
Indonesia and Vietnam, among other countries. As in Thailand, they often find
jobs in areas where Malaysians are reluctant to work, especially in
construction, manufacturing and agriculture, and as domestic help. Malaysia has
since the 1970s relied heavily on foreign workers to achieve its policy of
Amnesty claims that while in principle Malaysia's labor laws should cover
migrants, in practice they are rarely enforced. The system forces migrant
workers to rely heavily on their employers and recruiting brokers, which offers
them few safeguards. Employers and agents often confiscate passports, and
workers who chose to leave an employer have their work permits revoked and lose
all legal status, making them easy targets for arrest and detention.
The rights group also claims that police and members of the paramilitary
People's Volunteer Corps regularly target migrants for extortion and
ill-treatment. The effective criminalization of migration in Malaysia serves
only to encourage bad behavior. According to Amnesty's report, "large-scale
public round-ups in markets and on city streets, and indiscriminate,
warrantless raids on private dwellings in poorer neighborhoods send the message
that being poor and foreign - regardless of immigration status - is
A nationwide crackdown on illegal migrant workers began in Malaysia on February
14. Hundreds of workers were arrested and reports from media groups in Malaysia
and Thailand indicate that police often ignored legal travel documents during
the arrests, although people were later released if their paperwork was in
Detainees were sent to camps for illegal workers. Conditions in one site, at
Lenggeng, were so bad due to overcrowding that 1,400 detainees began a hunger
strike on February 22, demanding to see a representative from the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The situation was defused two
days later when 106 Myanmar migrants were taken out of the camp by UNHCR after
being recognized as refugees.
Corrupt immigration and security officials were accused last year of working
together with trafficking gangs in Thailand to sell workers rather than simply
deport them across the border. From there, the migrants must pay large ransoms
to be able to return to Malaysia. Malaysia was given a Tier 3 designation - the
worst category - in the US State Department's 2009 human trafficking report for
failure to comply with minimum standards for combating human trafficking or
taking significant steps to do so.
Malaysia claims it does not systematically exploit workers. However, statements
such as those made by the home minister in February carry ominous overtones.
Hishammuddin Hussein told the national press that authorities hoped to create
an atmosphere where illegal migrants would "feel afraid and threatened, and
prepared to leave the country immediately."
Rights groups said at the time that this type of language simply gives the
police freedom to carry out random raids on migrants with little fear of
In both Thailand and Malaysia, refugees have also run afoul of migrant
Malaysia, like Thailand, has not signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees nor its
1967 protocol, and makes little distinction between refugees and migrants.
There are currently 136,519 Myanmar refugees in Thailand according to figures
from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an organization that coordinates
humanitarian relief to refugee camps.
Thailand's migrant population is much bigger, numbering around 1.3 million,
with most hailing from Myanmar. Human rights and migrant protection groups say
many of the migrants have fled ongoing insurgency in Myanmar, human rights
abuses perpetuated by the government, or the chronic mismanagement of the
economy that has turned the country into one of the poorest.
In Thailand, many refugees choose to seek work rather than stay in the refugee
camps dotted along the border. In Malaysia, there are no camps and asylum
seekers are forced to seek work in order to survive, blurring the line between
refugee and migrant worker.
The issue grabbed headlines last year when the Thai navy allegedly forced
Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar back to sea on rickety boats after they
had landed in Thailand. The government claimed the Rohingya were economic
migrants, while others say that their circumstances means they should have been
Rights groups alleged this was not an isolated incident and that many other
Rohingya's have perished after being blocked entry to Thailand.
In December, after years of threats and despite pleas by several governments
and the United Nations, 4,371 Hmong refugees were forcibly repatriated to Laos
from a camp in Thailand's Petchabun province and another 158 from an
immigration detention center in Nong Khai. Thailand said both groups were
illegal migrants and not refugees.
While this may have been accurate in most cases, some of the Hmong had already
been given "person of concern" status by the UNHCR and others, say rights
groups, would have qualified if a proper screening process was carried out.
The Lao government claims the returnees have been well treated and no longer
wish to resettle in third countries, but not everyone is convinced. A visit on
March 26 to one of the resettlement sites by diplomats and foreign journalists
was perceived as being stage-managed by the regime. Despite this several
returnees were able to covey to the visitors their desire to go abroad, putting
into question the Lao government's claims.
According to Amnesty International, at least 90,000 and maybe as many as
170,000 refugees are currently in Malaysia, mostly from Myanmar and the
Philippines. Because no distinction is made in Malaysian law between migrants
and refugees, the result is that asylum seekers can be arrested, detained and
prosecuted for immigration offenses, including deportation back to their
Unlike migrants who often times can return home, refugees are especially
vulnerable to exploitation by employers and security officials due to their
need to avoid deportation. In mid-March, 93 Rohingya men from Myanmar were
arrested off the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi and detained by
The group had previously been intercepted by the Thai navy, which after
learning they were headed to Malaysia rather than Thailand gave them food and
other supplies to complete your voyage.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached