Thai Protests Leave Many Burmese Migrant Workers without Visas

Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are struggling to extend expired working visas as continuous anti-government protests in Bangkok and elsewhere affect the country’s administration, leaving thousands at risk of arrest, according to sources.

“Because of political rallies, it has not been easy to negotiate between the two governments for Burmese workers who have lived in Thailand for longer than their four-year visas,” Aye Myint, Burma’s Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security told The Irrawaddy.

The on-going protests against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began in early November last year, triggered by a proposed amnesty bill that would have facilitated the return of her elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill was passed by the Pheu Thai Party-dominated House of Representatives but turned down by the Senate.

The Union Daily, a private newspaper sponsored by Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), recently quoted Aye Myint denying that his government has done nothing for those workers who overstay.

“There have been discussions and negotiations between the two governments but our workers are still targeted by thuggish gangs and those who want to extort money from them,” the newspaper quoted as Aye Myint was saying.

According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2009 by the Burmese and Thai governments, Burmese migrant workers whose four-year visas have expired are allowed to come back to work in Thailand only after they have gone back to Burma and lived there for three years.

Burma’s Labor Ministry, however, is reportedly trying to negotiate with its Thai counterpart a way for workers to remain in Thailand without needing to return home.

Meanwhile, Burmese people living in Thailand have told The Irrawaddy that their fellow workers have been arrested although the Burmese government said it had asked Bangkok not to detain those with expired visas.

“Several people have already been arrested around Bangkok while some others have gone into hiding,” said Ma Oo, who has been providing assistance to Burmese migrant workers as a member of the Myanmar Association Thailand (MAT).

“Our government hasn’t properly explained to workers what is going on, or done anything about those detainees. Many people are now with expired visas and some have already stayed in Thailand for 4-5 months without visa.”

Ma Oo added that the number of Burmese people living at risk of arrest in Bangkok and surrounding areas currently exceeds 100,000 and many in other areas face similar situations. Some have been arrested while hiding and Thai employers do not take any responsibility for any employee who does not have permit to stay in the Kingdom, she said.

“I had to quit my job from the factory I was working for because it no longer accepted me with an expired visa. I couldn’t move to another place as well for the same reason,” confirmed a female worker in Bangkok, who requested not to be named. “I now move around to escape arrest and sell things like a street vendor. I don’t know when I will be caught.”

Some Burmese workers in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, however, told The Irrawaddy that those with expired visas could continue working, but were not allowed to move somewhere else.

“The Thai deputy labor minister told us that he had asked police not to arrest workers with such visa problems because the current political situation was not stable,” said a worker who wanted to remain anonymous. “He also warned that we would be arrested if we moved to other places outside Chiang Mai.”

According to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, it has regularly dealt with responsible channels in the Thai government in order to agree the continuous stay of Burmese workers whose four-year visas have been expired.

About three millions Burmese migrant workers are reportedly working in Thailand nowadays, most of who take jobs in construction, agriculture, fishery, seafood factories, garment factories and restaurants.