April 13, 2008 / 6:25 AM / 12 years ago

No light at end of Thai-Myanmar smuggling tunnel

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

RANONG, Thailand, April 13 (Reuters) - Thailand beefed up its border checks this week after 54 illegal Myanmar migrants died seeking a better life.

But the move will do little to stop economic refugees like Seng.

"We have a bad government. I cannot save anything from the crops I produce because soldiers take most of it away," Seng, 44, told Reuters in the southern border town of Ranong where the migrants were found suffocated in a container truck.

Without the money he sends home from working on a small fishing boat, Seng’s three children would not survive.

"Only when Myanmar has a good government, will I return to live there," said Seng, who has not seen his family in four years.

The fate of the 120 people smuggled in a stifling hot 20-ft container truck last week — of whom 54 suffocated — has again focused attention on the migrant labour issue in Thailand.

Sharing a 2,400 km (1,490 miles) porous border with Myanmar, Thailand is home to some 2 million migrant workers, mostly from its western neighbour, and only a quarter of them are legally registered.

With Thais shunning mundane, dirty and dangerous work on farms, fishing boats and building sites, and Myanmar’s generals refusing to fix a crippled economy, Thai officials say the influx of cheap, migrant labour will continue.

"As long as people are struggling to find a better life, we cannot stop them from entering Thailand," Ranong Governor Kanchanapa Keemun told Reuters.

Ranong, which shares a 170 km (105 mile) water and land border with Myanmar’s fishing port city of Victoria Point, is one of the busiest transit points for migrants, aid workers say.

"Ranong is the biggest supplier of migrant workers to the rest of the country," legal aid worker Suwat Ongsomwhang said.

"If it were a contest, migrant workers would be Ranong’s OTOP," he said, referring to the acronym for a government programme promoting well-known products from villages.


Employers across the country, from hotels on the resort island of Phuket to factories in Bangkok and fishing boats in the Gulf of Thailand, place orders for migrants through brokers in Ranong and Victoria Point, Suwat said.

Once the brokers gather enough workers, they are smuggled across rivers or through forested hills to Ranong from Victoria Point, he said.

Various tactics are used to evade border checks. The illegal immigrants are jammed into container trucks, hidden under fresh produce in pickup trucks, or in fishing boats.

The 54 who died last week were trapped for several hours in a 20-ft container after the refrigeration system broke down.

The Migrant Worker Group, a coalition of NGOs, said it has documented 10 cases in which more than 100 people had died being transported to Thailand in the past year.

Ranong, the least populated of Thailand’s 76 provinces with 180,000 Thais, is home to 50,000 registered and 20,000 unregistered Myanmar migrants, Governor Kanchanapa said.

But Suwat said other estimates suggest the entire Myanmar population in Ranong could be three times higher as most employers under-report the number of migrants they hire.

Many migrants work in rubber plantations or confined at fishing piers where their presence is not visible to law enforcers, leaving their treatment a matter of employers’ discretion.

Migrant workers, legal or not, do not enjoy the same minimum wage guarantees as Thai workers, most earning about 3,000 baht ($100) a month, half the payment required by law for Thais.

Only those who are registered, a quarter of the two million migrants working across Thailand, are eligible for state health service through insurance purchase, leaving the rest to fend for themselves or seek help from international aid groups.

They also face restrictions such as a ban on using mobile phones or driving vehicles on the pretext of security, which allow corrupt law enforcement officials to exploit them, aid workers said.

"If Thailand’s labour laws were followed across the board, fewer migrants would resort to illegal crossings or be susceptible to trafficking, and could travel and work with basic rights under law," Human Rights Watch said.

"It’s time for the Thai and Burmese governments to implement transparent measures that protect the lives and basic rights of migrant workers," the rights group said.

(Editing by Darren Schuettler and Jerry Norton)

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