The State of Migration in Thailand

Burmese migrants work in construction projects in Phang Nang. Photo: IOM / Courtesy

By Dana Graber Ladek
International Organization for Migration

She cleans your house, sews your clothes and cooks your food. He catches the fish you eat, builds the house you live in and polishes the shoes you wear. These labor intensive occupations are often the vocation of one group of people – migrants.

Since the year 2000, the United Nations has celebrated these individuals’ hard work by marking 18 December as International Migrants Day, and with good reason. Migrants have an overwhelmingly positive impact on society in both tangible and intangible terms. Economically, their contributions should not be understated. Migrants constitute about 3.5 per cent of the world’s population but contribute to nearly 10 per cent of global GDP, valued at USD $6.7 trillion.

Closer to home, numerous studies have pointed to migrants contributing to Thai GDP growth of at least 1 percent. These numbers do not include the income generated from domestic consumption and indirect taxes. With an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, Thailand needs migrants now more than ever. Without them, serious labour shortages would occur, particularly in the construction, agriculture and service sectors.

As a country of origin, transit and destination for large numbers of migrants from across the region, Thailand’s migration flows are naturally complex and dynamic. Between 3 to 4 million migrants are estimated to be living and working in the country, including 1 to 1.5 million with irregular status and 110,000 refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Families of migrants workers in Phang Nang, Thailand. Photo: IOM / Courtesy
Families of migrants workers in Phang Nang, Thailand. Photo: IOM / Courtesy

Over 80 percent of Thailand’s migrant stock comes from just three countries – Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar. Their presence signals the economic success of the Thai economy which provides higher wages and better job opportunities. Effective migration management is needed to harness the full potential of migrants and prevent their exploitation at the same time.

Since Thailand joined the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a member state 30 years ago in 1986, the country has made impressive strides in protecting the rights of migrants while acknowledging their contributions. In recent years, the Royal Thai Government has taken on a practical and innovative approach in developing its own migration management model.

It has created a registration system which allowed millions of undocumented migrants to regularize their status without having to return to their countries of origin. The most recent registration window was successful in registering 1.6 million migrants in 2014. Migrant children with registered parents are entitled to education and welfare benefits while migrant workers are entitled to the same minimum wage as their Thai counterparts. More notably, Thailand stands out as a leader in providing migrants the same universal health care plan that citizens are able to access.

In terms of best practices, the Government has signed Memorandums of Understanding with neighbouring countries to better manage labour demand and supply – providing migrants a legal channel to access job opportunities in Thailand. The recent establishment of Assistance Centres in 10 provinces to provide support and information related to rights, legal status and human trafficking is also a step in the right direction.

Yet in spite of these achievements, many challenges persist. While the MOUs have existed for over a decade, take-up rates are low. Only about one in ten registered migrants have entered Thailand through this arrangement, showing it has not yet become an effective mechanism to meet the demand for migrant labour. High costs, long waiting times and bureaucratic red-tape discourage many from entering to work in Thailand through legal routes.

Burmese migrants work in fishing boats and coastal communities in Phang Nga, Southern Thailand. Photo: IOM / Courtesy
Burmese migrants work in fishing boats and coastal communities in Phang Nga, Southern Thailand. Photo: IOM / Courtesy

The lack of effective law enforcement has also contributed to several pressing issues such as poor working conditions, exploitation, human smuggling and trafficking, and transnational crime. Recent reports of forced labour in the fishing and agricultural sectors have caught the attention of foreign governments and international media.

It is important to note at this point that movements are now taking place against the backdrop of the newly formed ASEAN Economic Community which came into effect this year. As regional integration deepens, the number of migrants traversing the region is only set to increase in the future. This presents another set of interrelated migration challenges that necessitates bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Lying at the crossroads of mainland Southeast Asia, Thai policy makers will need to keep the region’s context in mind and broaden its partnerships with foreign governments.

In order for Thailand to continue to benefit from migration, it will also be imperative for the Royal Thai Government and its partners to make rights-based and judicious decisions on migration policy that recognizes the contributions of migrants to national development. The end view should always be that migration is a force that is not to be stopped but effectively managed. This will in turn have a lasting positive impact on the country’s growth and development.

Dana Graber Ladek is the chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration’s Mission in Thailand.

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