Burmese migrant workers in Thailand fear new immigration and work permit procedures will make life harder for them and their families back home. Thai authorities say the new procedures will curb illegal migration but rights activists say the measures threaten the migrants' security.
The Thai cabinet has recently ordered migrant workers to verify their nationality to qualify for work permits.
The new guidelines cover over one million legal Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, as well as more than 200,000 workers from Laos and Cambodia.
Under the guidelines announced Tuesday, migrant workers must begin the new work permit procedures by February 28th or risk deportation.
The Thai government says the new rules are meant to control the flow of illegal migrants, now estimated to number three million. Panitan Wattanaygorn, a government spokesman, says the influx of illegal migrants has reached a critical stage.
"I think the situation is very critical had they not begun to implement this kind of policies or procedures," he said. "So the National Security Council sees this as a major concern for Thai security and they want to implement the law. But the law has to be adjusted so they have come up with this new proposal because we need foreign workers in Thailand," he said.
Thailand has long relied on migrant workers, who usually take tough, low-paying jobs in the construction, farming and fishing industries.
The government has been talking with officials in Burma, Laos and Cambodia since 2004 on ways to clarify the status of migrant workers.
The Lao and Cambodian governments agreed to send officials to Thailand so their nationals could verify their nationality without leaving the country.
Officials in Burma, also called Myanmar, refused to send staff to Thailand. Instead, Burmese workers must go to registration offices just across the border to complete the process.
Thetis Mangahas, a migration expert with the International Labor Office, says while a comprehensive migration policy is necessary, the new rules trouble Burmese workers.
Mangahas says the workers worry about how the information they provide will be used.
"There are individuals who are in real fear about providing information that might cause the government of Myanmar [Burma] to retaliate or to take action against the families. So you have a very complicated situation here and it's really as a result of policies which have not been thought through," said Mangahas.
There are reports that when a worker files the paperwork to start the new process, Burmese officials use the address to harass families for additional taxes.
Joseph Serrani is the foreign affairs coordinator with the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, an organization that offers training courses for Burmese migrants. He says the workers have little confidence in the Burmese government's national verification policy.
"Because of the past experiences of the government in Burma and the way they have treated their people most migrants see this as another opportunity for the government in Burma to exploit them further. So most migrants see this as an opportunity for the Burmese government to regularize them, somehow tax them," he said.
Na Bamoom Maha works as a nanny in Bangkok. She fears being sent back to Burma.
She says if the migrant workers fail to go through the verification process it may result in a crackdown against illegal and undocumented migrant workers. She says her family in Burma says if she cannot stay with a work permit, she should return home.
There also are risks with crossing the border. Young women, for instance, can become victims of human traffickers. Other workers may be forced to pay bribes to get the paperwork done. Some workers fear losing their jobs because they have to take time off to go to the border.
Migrant rights workers say some Burmese may go underground, rather than risk crossing the border.
The new rules also mean new costs for migrants - up to two month's wages. They have to pay for the new documents and the trip to the border, and often have to pay fees to the labor brokers who get them jobs.
Debbie Stothardt is with the activist group the Alternate ASEAN Network, which campaigns for political reforms in Burma.
"It is ironic and it's tragic that the lowest income earners doing the dirtiest, dangerous jobs are actually being forced to go through this process which is expensive and far too complicated," she said.
Despite the complaints of rights activists, the Thai government remains determined to implement the new guidelines. But experts on migrant labor in the region say the policy could be counterproductive, by driving more migrants to work illegally and putting them at risk of abuses by unscrupulous employers.