Burma Begins Passport Scheme for Migrant Workers in Thailand

By Nyein Nyein 21 March 2014

Burma this month began a scheme to issue regular passports to migrant workers in Thailand, an embassy official in Bangkok said. The process is highly complex and rules out many who do not have the right documentation, however, and is unlikely to supplant the many brokers trading in unofficial documents.

Many of the estimated 3 million Burmese in Thailand have stayed beyond the four-year limit of temporary travel documents, leaving them vulnerable to deportation or abuse at the hands of Thai authorities.

Burmese state-run media reported Thursday that a team of 24 officials arrived in Thailand in early March and had begun processing applications on March 10 from migrant workers.

Under the new scheme, processing for a new passport can take up to six months, according to an announcement from Burma’s Ministry of Labor, Welfare and Employment dated March 5 but shared with labor rights groups only this week.

The announcement said workers must first submit numerous documents to Thailand’s Department of Employment. The required documents are: a labor demand letter from their Thai employer, a copy of their employment contract, a referral letter, a worker application, copies of their previous work permit and temporary passport, as well as their Burmese ID card and household registration.

Applications will then be transferred to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok for further scrutiny. If the new passport is authorized, the worker must collect it at a branch of the Homes Affairs Ministry in Burma, and only then can they apply for a working visa at special service centers in the Thai border towns of Mae Sai, Mae Sot and Ranong.

Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, the labor attaché at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy that migrant workers must not use unofficial brokers in the process.

“The employers and employees can come together with those documents to apply for it, but if they use a broker we cannot help,” he said, adding that those whose temporary passports have expired were still permitted to apply for a permanent passport.

However, he said, anyone without the required identification documents from Burma would not be eligible. “If they don’t have a Burmese ID and the household registration, they will have to go back to Myanmar,” Kyaw Kyaw Lwin said.

The Labor Ministry also said in its announcement that workers should “beware of brokers” and warned that “those who apply with fake information will not be provided with the regular passport.” Exchanging a temporary passport for a permanent one costs 1,600 baht, or about US$50, but extra charges also apply, the ministry said.

Migrant rights activists say the scheme is overly complicated, and demands documentation that many migrants simply don’t have.

“The current plan they announced is more complex than ever. Some workers do not have all the documents as they have been working in Thailand for about 20 years,” Htoo Chit, the director of Foundation for Education Development told The Irrawaddy.

“These workers used to be refugees of war, having fled their homes, and they hold neither household registration nor ID cards.

“I think the government’s new scheme will result in more illegal migrant workers.”

Similar complicated and costly processes for obtaining documentation to work in Thailand have fueled a thriving market for brokers.

A broker in Mae Sot, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Irrawaddy that the market would be unaffected by the new scheme, under which people would have to wait at least 45 days for documentation. Passports can still be obtained through brokers more quickly and conveniently for about 12,000 baht, or $370, he explained.