Sometimes the only difference between a migrant and a refugee is that the former chooses to work and live outside a camp so that he can earn money and support relatives back home

Two NGOs are urging the Thai Government to put words into action: stop categorizing Burmese fleeing atrocities in their home country as refugees or migrants and give them human rights protection.

Just a couple of months after the promulgation of the ASEAN Charter in November 2007, the Thai Government came under fire when it was accused of sending Rohingya people who escaped prosecution from the Burmese junta back into the sea on mortorless boats, resulting in several deaths. Bangkok, which is the current ASEAN chair, reportedly insisted that these Rohingya people, a stateless Muslim minority in Burma, were not “refugees” but “illegal migrants” and should be sent back to the military-ruled country.

Many migrants fit the definition of a political refugee. Yet, they are often perceived as voluntarily leaving their home country to seek better economic opportunities. On the contrary, refugees are perceived with a more sympathetic attitude as victims who are forced to escape armed conflict or human rights abuses in their home countries, said Ms. Jackie Pollock, director of the Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP) Foundation.

In reality, sometimes the only difference between a migrant and a refugee is that the former chooses to work and live outside a camp so that he can earn money and support relatives back home who have not been able to escape while the latter chooses to live in camps provided by the hosting country. “Rather than categorizing people as refugees or migrants, we should look at their needs.” Ms. Pollock said. “People who have been traumatized need to be provided a safe place to stay. I don’t think refugee camps provide that.”

At the MAP’s joint press conference with the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) on 16 June, the two NGOs were calling for increased human rights protection for Burmese migrants and refugees as well as transparent recruitment process of migrant workers to beat human trafficking.

Abuses and poverty brought by military rule are the causes of migration. The NGO activists at the press conference agreed that ASEAN lacks the teeth to enforce its own charter, which outlines the creation of a regional human rights body and human rights protection for ASEAN citizens. Still, the presence of a written agreement gives them a solid footing to present their demands. While there is little other countries can do to stop the Burmese junta from carrying out abuses, they have control over their national policies and can help migrants by granting them opportunities to work and stay legally, said Ms. Pollock.

The lack of a legal and transparent system of migrant employment creates loopholes for traffickers to take advantage of people who are already living in harsh conditions. Many illegal migrant workers are underpaid by their employers and also have to pay excessive fees to traffickers who brought them to Thailand, she added.

In its 16 June press release, the KHRG calls governments to make use of existing human rights laws to establish a strong international framework that can better protect human rights of migrants from Burma and other migrant workers in vulnerable situations.

Allowing Burmese migrants to stay and work legally benefits not only migrants but also hosting countries. The transparency of the process will eliminate the problem of human trafficking and criminal rings while yielding economic benefits for hosting countries. For migrants, legal employment and protected labour rights mean less likelihood of abuses by the employer, better access to school and medical services, said Ms. Pollock.

“The difficulty is finding the political will to accept that these migrants have rights that they are already entitled to as human beings,” Ms. Pollock said about her work. Traumatized people who escape abuses need to be given choices to survive: either give them the right to work legally as migrant workers or grant them permanent resettlement, she added.

She commended a compromise Thailand had recently made in granting citizenship to migrants. Children of migrants whom the Thai government issued cards for as stateless people will be granted Thai citizenship. These cards are valid for ten years but their holders, the parents, are not granted citizenship.

Burma has been under military rule of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) since 1988 control despite a legitimate landslide victory of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the general election in that year.

Given the junta’s continued human rights abuses and frequent armed battles between the SPDC and smaller armed groups within the country, there is a trend towards more people fleeing into Thailand, KHRG Field Director Poe Shan said. Most recently, about 3,000 villagers fled to Thailand after the SPDC launched attacks on a Karen National Liberation Army camp on 2 June.

“People are not just leaving homes to find a better place to live,” said Mr. Shan. “They are escaping abuses and poverty brought by the SPDC rule.”

KHRG conducted more than 150 interviews with residents of Karen state in Eastern Burma for the report “Abuse, Poverty and Migration,” released at the press conference in Bangkok. 78% of migrant workers interviewed cited exploitative abuses such as forced military recruitment, forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, arbitrary taxation, fear of prosecution, arbitrary beating and arrest as reasons for escaping Burma. “It’s a matter of survival,” said September Paw, a Karen spokesperson for the report.

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