June 27, 2018 / 1:23 PM / 3 months ago

Fears for 'stateless' Myanmar workers in Thailand as deadline looms

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Muslim migrant workers from Myanmar risk being fined and deported from Thailand after June 30, under a new law that campaigners say may increase abuse and trafficking.

Under Thai regulations issued last year, migrant workers have until Saturday to register, using a Certificate of Identity issued by their home country, as a first step towards applying for a work permit.

But Muslims from Buddhist-majority Myanmar face major challenges getting documentation, said Kyaw Win, executive director of advocacy group Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), which uses the former name for the country.

“These are people who fled Myanmar to escape persecution and civil war. This law increases their vulnerability,” he said.

“Their statelessness is an urgent and serious issue. If they cannot live in Thailand after June 30, they may have to return to Myanmar, where they face persecution and imprisonment,” said Win, who conducted a survey of Muslim migrant workers.

Myanmar’s home ministry did not immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

Since taking power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s ruling junta has taken steps to regulate the foreign workforce, spurred partly by reports that unregulated workers faced exploitation by employers.

Thailand has more than 3 million migrant workers, according to the International Organization for Migration, although rights groups put the figure higher, as many are undocumented.

Since the labour regulation was announced, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos have fled Thailand, immigration officials have said.

Thousands of Muslims from Myanmar who remain in Thailand without the identity certificate, face fines of 2,000 to 100,000 baht ($60 to $3,000), five years in prison or deportation, and a two-year ban on re-applying for a work permit.

BHRN’s survey of Muslims from Myanmar in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, found nearly 80 percent had never been issued citizenship documents.

Two out of three had their applications for identity certificates rejected, their survey showed.

“Their very existence is denied,” Win told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday, at the release of the report.

“We are asking Thai authorities to adopt a humane policy towards them, and refrain from deporting them.”

Undocumented migrants may also face a greater risk of trafficking, as they will rely on brokers to get their documentation, or for jobs that do not require the certificate, said independent rights activist Johny Adhikari.

“It is ironic that a law that is meant to protect migrant workers may end up hurting them more,” he said.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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