Migrants Left in Limbo After Burma Postpones Temporary Passports

By Nyein Nyein 12 November 2013

In a further complication of the many-fold issues faced by Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, Burma’s planned opening of border offices that could provide temporary passports to migrants is being postponed, the Burma Embassy said.

Migrant rights advocates said the latest setback in sorting out the legal status of millions of Burmese workers indicates that Naypyidaw and Bangkok are unable—or unwilling—to free migrants from exploitation and extortion at the hands of brokers and corrupt officials.

As many as 3 million Burmese are believed to be working in Thailand, but many lack official Burmese identity papers, Thai working visas and other legal documentation. As a result, many work as unregistered laborers, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by employers and authorities.

In recent years, Thailand and Burma have held numerous bilateral meetings to agree on how the migrants can be officially registered and given Burmese identity papers and Thai working permits.

In 2009, the sides started the so-called Nationality Verification process, which has been plagued by bureaucratic problems and accusations that it requires workers to pay bribes to corrupt officials and brokers, pushing them further into debt bondage with their employers.

Under a recent Thai-Burmese agreement, workers would be required to visit Burmese border offices to be issued temporary passport and upon entering Thailand they would receive new working visas.

Due certain legal requirements, workers who passed the process in 2009 have not been able to renew their visas with Thai immigration officials since July 2013. Hundreds of thousands of these workers were supposed to visit Burmese border office in November to obtain temporary passports so they could receive Thai visas.

Despite months of preparation, however, the border offices will not open as planned this month, the Burma Embassy in Bangkok said.

“We expected to open these offices in November, but we have to postpone as the process is not finished yet,” labor attaché Kyaw Kyaw Lin said. Asked when the offices would open, he said, “We will inform the public as soon as we are ready, but right now we cannot yet say clearly when [the offices will open].”

Migrant rights advocates and workers expressed frustration with the Burmese and Thai governments’ failure to help the workers.

“We presented this issue to both Burmese and Thai government on September 1 … they said they will open border offices in early November,” said Aung Kyaw, the chairman of the Bangkok-based Migrant Workers Rights Network (MRWN).

“They are now overstaying and there is no clear policy or announcements from both governments on how they will solve this problem,” he added.

“Once again… workers are being forced, as a result of poor and incompetent migration policy management and corruption, to spend significant amounts of money in their quest to get visas and work permit,” MRWN said in a statement. “The abuse of migrant workers by brokers and agencies, working closely with Myanmar and Thai officials, is now significantly increasing.”

Sai Sai, a migrant laborer in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, said he was left clueless as to how he could resolve his legal status as a worker in Thailand.

“We cannot extend our Thai visa, it is already expired and we have to stay without extending it,” he said, “And we cannot go back to Burma yet as our work is here, and even if we go back we cannot do anything there to help extend our stay.”