Reports of an ethnic Karen girl from Burma who was allegedly abducted and tortured by a Thai couple have cast a harsh light on the treatment of Burmese migrants living in Thailand.
Photos of the 12-year-old girl show her body covered with scars, apparently caused by severe burns. The girl, who said the couple kidnapped her five years ago and forced her to work as their servant, accused them of repeatedly pouring scalding water over her body as punishment for disobedience.
The girl, identified in Thai media reports by the pseudonym “Air,” is currently in the care of a children’s shelter in Kamphaeng Phet Province after escaping from the couple’s custody on Jan. 31.
The couple, Nathee Taeng-orn, 35, and Rattanakorn Piyavoratharm, 33, of Kamphaeng Phet’s Muang District, have been charged with assault and illegal detention, but have denied all wrongdoing and are now out on bail.
The case has attracted the attention of Burmese officials, according to Kyaw Thaung, the director of the Bangkok-based Burmese Association in Thailand, who told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the embassy’s defense attache, Col Win Maung, had contacted him to find out more about the girl.
According to Burmese migrants’ rights groups, the abuses inflicted on the 12-year-old girl were extreme, but not uncommon. They say that migrants—particularly in areas like Kamphaeng Phet, where only around 800 of an estimated 40,000 migrant workers are registered, and where there are no strong activist groups—are at high risk of murder, forced labor, assault, rape and illegal detention.
Typically, local authorities offer little or no protection against such crimes. “Air” said that she had fled from her captors three years ago, only to be returned to their custody by the police.
Far from protecting Burmese workers, Thai officials often actively participate in abuses, according to rights groups.
“Gangsters and the authorities often use force to demand money or anything else they want” from migrants, according to Moe Gyo, the director of the Joint Action Committee on Burmese Affairs, based in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot, home to Thailand’s largest Burmese community.
Mae Sot is located in Tak Province, which neighbors Kamphaeng Phet and has an estimated 400,000 migrants, of whom around 60,000 are legally registered.
By some estimates, there are as many as 4 million migrants from neighboring countries working across Thailand. Fewer than half, however, are officially registered, despite a scheme to provide temporary passports to workers already in the country.
Rights groups say that the system imposes prohibitive costs on the workers, many of whom opt to remain unregistered.