CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Burmese migrant workers in Thailand whose four-year visas have expired should follow the rules laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries in order to avoid arrest in the neighboring nation, said Burma’s labor attaché Kyaw Kyaw Lwin on Friday.
The MoU, signed in 2009, originally stated that Burmese nationals holding temporary passports—travel documents that allow entry to Thailand only—who have worked in Thailand for four years must return to their home country for three years before they would be allowed to return to the Kingdom.
But last year, the Burma Embassy and officials from the Thai Department of Employment agreed in principle that migrants could “return” to Burma by crossing over the border for only one night and would then be allowed to apply for new visas at border processing offices. The agreement came after a series of meetings that saw the stay period in Burma reduced from the original three years down to one month and then one night.
However, the new agreement has not yet been approved by the Thai cabinet, leaving the legal status of the arrangement murky.
Adding to Burmese migrant workers’ uncertainty, plans to open the border visa processing facilities have been delayed due to political turmoil in Thailand that began more than two months ago. As a result, more Burmese migrants’ visas are expiring by the day.
The Burma Embassy says it has asked Thai authorities not to arrest those migrant workers whose visas have expired due to their inability to renew the document at the nonfunctioning border offices. Despite the request, in some places workers are facing arrest and deportation.
The Burmese labor attaché said there could be more than 10,000 migrants whose visas have already expired.
“Those 10,000 people should go back [to Burma] and re-enter Thailand with a new MoU passport. That would be my best advice,” Kyaw Kyaw Lwin told The Irrawaddy.
Many of the migrant workers first entered Thailand holding temporary passports, but since December, the Burmese government has been issuing permanent passports to Burmese nationals seeking to work in Thailand.
“They can contact labor agencies and apply for a visa with a new MoU passport like others who are now coming in,” Kyaw Kyaw Lwin said, adding that the bulk of cases were yet to come, as “there will be more than 100,000 visa-expired migrants by the end of 2014.”
Asked about the two governments’ efforts to ensure the safety of migrant workers, Kyaw Kyaw Lin said Burma had engaged in frequent talks with Thai labor officials, but the issues, including the border offices’ closure and continued arrests of migrants, had not yet been resolved.
“We asked the Thai labor officials to allow the migrants to continue staying for another 180 days after their visas have expired,” he said. “It has not been settled as the cabinet has not yet approved it.”
Though efforts to resolve the visa dilemma are being undertaken, in practical terms many migrants whose visas have expired are being dismissed by employers in some places, such as Mahachai near Bangkok, and arrests by Thai police for illegally overstaying in the Kingdom are taking place.
“The employer of a tin-fish factory in Mahachai, known as MPP, told its 28 workers to leave since their visas expired in mid-January,” said Khaing Gyi, secretary of the Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT).
He said about 300 more workers’ visas would expire on Feb. 5 at the same factory and “their employer told them that he will no longer employ them at the factory.”
Labor rights activists estimate that there could be more than 100,000 people out of the 1.7 million registered Burmese migrant workers in Thailand whose visas will expire in February. As many as one million additional migrant workers in Thailand are unregistered.
“I doubt that the embassy and the Burmese government have the data on the first temporary passport holders in 2009,” said Khaing Gyi, adding that in the Mahachai area alone there were currently about 10,000 people whose four-year visas were set to expire.
The MAT secretary said that if both governments did not come up with an immediate solution to the problem, migrant workers’ lives would be susceptible to the exploitation, human trafficking and widespread incarcerations that characterized cross-border labor relations in the 2000s.
“Now many migrant workers are seeking ways to be able to continue staying in their community by paying money to some Thai authorities, local police and the township officials, like in the past,” he said.
“The embassy should issue a formal announcement for the migrant workers. They must announce what the migrants really should do, to avoid such difficulties.”