Thailand: Proposal to DNA-test migrant workers panned

Prompted by concerns over the ease with which foreigners will be able to travel in and out of the country once the Asean Economic Community (AEC) commences in 2015, the Institute for Forensic Medicine is calling on the government to collect the DNA of all migrant workers entering the country, to be stored in a national database for future identification.

The proposal has been met with criticism from all sides, ranging from employers, who cite the high cost, to human rights advocates, who say the idea is a blatant violation of their basic human rights and would generate xenophobia.

IFM commander Pol Maj-General Dr Pornchai Suteerakune cited a scenario he dubbed “foreign murderers lurking in the country” as the reason for collecting DNA samples. “We have to be wary of the increasing number of foreigners travelling to Thailand. Without a well thought-out plan in place, problems will arise.

“Migrant workers will be able to commit crimes in Thailand, then escape the Thai justice system by fleeing to their own countries where Thai law is not applicable,” he explained.

The IFM’s proposal suggests that employers – initially those running factories – be required to pay up to Bt5,000 for each DNA sample collected from a migrant worker, and that the cost be deducted from the worker’s salary in small monthly increments.

“We need to work on a solution as a defensive measure in preparation [for the AEC],” Pornchai added.

Another plan in the pipeline is to set up a provincial IFM office in Southern Thailand’s Provincial Police Region 9, where DNA samples could be taken from crime scenes to assist counterinsurgency operations. Under the plan, the IFM would eventually establish regional offices in all 10 provincial police regions, enabling the IFM to easily assist police investigations across the country.

Department of Employment director-general Pravit Khiengpol said “no country in the world does such a thing [to migrant workers].”

He added that it would lead to a backlash from international human rights advocates, as migrant workers, who already have to pay the for their medical examinations and health insurance to ensure they can secure employment, would be seen as being doubly exploited by Thai authorities.

The DNA proposal also goes against the policy of the department, which aims to further reduce the costs shouldered by migrant workers, while encouraging employers to register illegal workers and legitimise their employment.

“The higher cost [of DNA collection] would drive migrant workers underground and force many of them to continue working illegally. The department already collects biodata of these workers – their fingerprints – in addition to their photos and other details. The police can always request access to this additional information from us,” Pravit added.

Human Rights Commissioner Dr Niran Pitakwatchara said taking non-consensual DNA samples was a violation of one’s basic human rights, and doing so was regarded as discriminatory and portrayed migrant workers who have not committed crimes in a negative light.

“Their human rights should be respected even further [by Thai authorities] when the AEC 2015 takes affect. The protocol should not focus only on the economic gains generated by migrant workers, while at the same time treating them as inferior,” he added.

Wiriya Sirichai-ekkawat, head of the Thai Overseas Fisheries Association, said the idea had some merit but was too costly and impractical, because collecting someone’s DNA could not be forced on anyone against their will. He said mandatory DNA collection would encourage fishing trawler skippers or employers to hire workers secretly at much lower fees, while organisations like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) would certainly oppose it, he said, adding that the ILO could argue that Thai workers should also get the same treatment.

The head of a network of advocacy groups for migrant workers, Roisai Wongsuban, said identity records and registration details of migrant workers could be retrieved easily through the Department of Employment and the immigration police database. The majority of crimes committed by migrant workers were related to illegal entry and overstaying their residency permits, she added.