CHIANG MAI, Thailand — For the past two months, Burmese migrants in Thailand have been eligible to exchange their temporary passports for regular passports, allowing them to travel outside of Thailand, but few people have applied for the upgrade, embassy officials say.
In the past, Burmese migrants in Thailand could not travel abroad due to limitations on their six-year temporary passports. In March, the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok began authorizing regular passports, which last five years.
But to be eligible for these regular passports, migrants are required to show a household registration certificate for their homes in Burma. Many migrants did not bring this document with them to Thailand and are reluctant to return home to retrieve it.
Three offices are now open in Thai border towns to help migrants begin the process of upgrading their passports once their working visas expire. “But we have received few applications,” Than Naing, the labor attaché of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy last week.
“The reason people are not coming is because they have not obtained both a Burmese ID card and Burmese household registration,” he said.
The Thailand Department of Labor estimated that about 400,000 Burmese migrants would exchange their passports, but brokers on the ground say that only about a tenth of that number have shown any interest. One broker in the Thai border town of Mae Sot said his office is accepting applications, but there have been few to process thus far.
The regular passport costs 1,600 baht (US$50), not counting additional fees for a two-year visa, a work permit and health insurance.
The Thai government last month agreed that migrants would be allowed to stay in the country for 180 days after their visas expired due to political turmoil in the country that prevented some departments from operating in full capacity.
But many of the estimated 3 million Burmese migrants have stayed even longer past the expiration of their visas, leaving them vulnerable to deportation or abuse at the hands of Thai authorities.
Labor rights activists have criticized the application process for new documents as overly complicated and subject to frequent changes.
Until 2009, Burmese migrants could live and work in Thailand with a one-year work permit, though they were restricted to staying in the area where they earned their income. In 2009, they were able to apply for a six-year temporary passport, a two-year visa and a one-year work permit, paying an extra 10,000 or so baht for these upgrades. In 2012, they were required to apply for new temporary passports—changing their old red books for purple books, at a cost of about 1,000 baht.
In March this year, Burmese migrants became eligible for the regular passports that allow them to travel outside the country. However, many migrants say it makes little sense to pay for the upgrade, since they do not earn enough money to travel abroad.
“Migrants would rather extend visas on their current temporary passport than apply for a new regular passport,” said Toom Mauk Harn, a coordinator for the Migrants Assistance Program.
He said it was important for the Thai and Burmese governments to maintain a consistent policy with passports and visas. In 2009, both governments announced that Burmese migrants who had worked in Thailand for four years would be required to return to Burma for three years. Later, they changed the policy, saying migrants could go home for as little as one month before returning to Thailand for employment. In reality, many migrants chose not to go home at all, instead opting to apply for a new passport under a different name. As a result, many lost the social benefits they had received under their old names, Toom Mauk Harn said.
Now, many migrants say they lack the time and money to travel to Burma to retrieve their Burmese household registration certificates.
Kyaw Thaung, director of the Myanmar Association in Thailand (MAT), said this requirement was problematic. “It is not a good plan for the majority of migrants,” he said.
He added that many passport agents were corrupt, asking migrants who earn less than $10 per day to pay additional fees during the application process.
“It is understandable to require a Burmese ID [for the passport application], but the need for a household registration document makes many people reluctant,” said Htoo Chit, director of the Foundation for Education and Development.
He said Thailand-based Burmese labor rights groups had collaborated with Burmese embassy officials to form a Myanmar Workers Protection Committee, to provide assistance to migrants. However, he said the committee was just “for show,” as a means to show the international community that the Burmese government cares about migrants.
“The officials must think about what’s easiest for migrants—and that would be a process that is less dependent on labor agencies and brokers,” he said.