RANGOON — The Burmese Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) has called for urgent action by the Thai and Burmese governments to ease the legal plight of Burmese migrant laborers in Thailand, many of whom are facing deportation or financially ruinous overstay fees due to a system that the network says is broken.
At a press conference on Friday, the MWRN offered five steps to be implemented by the respective governments, aimed at eliminating punitive immigration policies and streamlining the reregistration of millions of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.
Among the recommendations, authorities are urged to set out a clear and convenient procedure for extending migrant workers’ stay permits and renewing their passports, without having to enlist the assistance of often exploitative brokers or agents.
The MWRN also called on the responsible authorities to make information—including on reregistration requirements and processing times for each step in the process—more widely available to the public.
Centers to extend visas and renew passports should be available not only on the border but also at locations in Thailand with dense migrant worker populations, the MWRN said. The two governments agreed last year to establish border centers to handle migrant laborer processing, including issuing documents for Thai residency and work eligibility, and handling renewal procedures. Political turmoil in Thailand for the last several months, however, has delayed the centers’ opening.
Workers whose visas have expired should not be fined for overstaying, the network said, due to processing delays—such as that caused by the domestic political upheaval in Thailand—that have been beyond the migrant laborers’ control. It also urged the Burmese government to negotiate with Thai officials to revoke a 1,000 baht (US$30) deportation fee that will soon be charged to each Burmese migrant worker who overstays his or her visa.
“The Burmese government should negotiate immediately with its Thai counterpart not to collect the [deportation fee], which will start in March,” said Sein Htay, secretary of the MWRN.
The group says a new plan from the Burmese government to issue permanent passports could create more problems for migrants.
“For migrants from [minority] ethnic groups and rural areas, it is not easy to have an ID card and household registration certificate, which will be required in issuing permanent passports,” Sein Htay told The Irrawaddy.
Most Burmese migrant workers in Thailand hold purple-colored “temporary” passports that allow entry to Thailand only, but since December, the Burmese government has been issuing its red, permanent passports to Burmese nationals seeking to work in Thailand.
Upwards of 3 million Burmese migrants work in Thailand. More than 1.7 million migrants passed through a national verification (NV) process from June 2009 to August 2013, and in doing so were issued the temporary passports with six years’ validity. A separate agreement between the two governments allowed temporary passport holders to apply for a two-year Thai visa and work permit that was extendable for two additional years.
Under the original agreement between Burma and Thailand, migrant workers would be required to return to Burma for three years following the expiration of their Thai visas, before being eligible to return to the Kingdom. In discussions that have followed, various proposals have been floated to allow for a more simple process to return to Thailand after a visa’s expiration, most recently a plan that would allow Burmese nationals to cross the border back into Burma for just one night before they were able to return to Thailand.
The two governments have yet to reach a finalized deal on altering the arrangement.
“The current system is not convenient for workers and puts them in a situation where they can be taken advantage of. The process needs to be easy and convenient for employers and employees,” Sein Htay said.
The MWRN says the lives and livelihoods that migrant workers in Thailand have established—including social security and life insurance packages, car registrations and bank accounts—could be at risk if they are required to again submit to an NV process as part of the requirement that they apply for a new permanent passport.
“The national verification process is not needed anymore since they have already passed through one,” Sein Htay said.
There are about 100,000 Burmese workers whose four-year visas have already expired and who are subject to a daily overstay fee of 500 baht per day, the MWRN said on Friday.
The MWRN is a network of 3,000 members advocating on behalf of Burmese migrant workers’ issues.