Thailand's Floods Lead to Exploitation of Migrant Workers

Inside the flood-hit west bank of central Bangkok. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The economic, political and human costs of the country's worst floods in over five decades are fast rising. More than 400 people have died and more than 2 million have been affected by floods that originated in the country's north and are now bearing down on the capital city in route to the Gulf of Thailand.

At the water's edge of the Pinklao bridge, which runs about 400 meters upriver from where King Bhumibol Adulyadej rests in the riverside Siriraj Hospital, residents queued to jump on trucks with wheels high enough to traverse kilometers of flooded streets on the west bank area of the city. The desperation is palpable and widespread with reports of power outages, food shortages and the emergence of water-borne diseases. All day last Wednesday people ferried food and water to homes or jumped on trucks with whatever they could salvage from their inundated homes. Tens of thousands have evacuated to dry parts of the city or left Bangkok altogether.

Amid a confusing and complex emergency, Yingluck's government and Bangkok's opposition-led City Hall have been at odds over flood management, mitigation and messaging since the waters began to threaten the capital. The political stakes are high considering Bangkok accounts for around 40 percent of national gross domestic product.

Both sides have alternated between pessimistic and optimistic messages, often interspersed with announcements from one side that took issue or contradicted the other. Yingluck at one point said Bangkok would be spared, while Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paribatra hotly contested that assessment. Flood mitigation has forced difficult political choices, and it appears that in part Bangkok's downtown remains dry because outer poorer areas are all wet.

At Sam Wa canal on the city's northern outskirts, locals protested and eventually forced open with sledge hammers on Monday a section of a sluice gate that had held flood waters in their neighborhood. Yingluck's government agreed to allow for a one-meter opening of the gate after residents carped that their area was being sacrificed to prevent floods from moving south toward the city center. 

In what some local media interpreted as Yingluck buckling to grass roots resistance, on Wednesday the Bangkok city administration enforced a repair of the breached gate, which it claimed if left open would flood industrial estates and central Bangkok commercial areas. 

Yingluck was elected in July on a pro-poor policy platform, but critics say many of her flood management choices have favored the rich over the poor. Those charges parallel criticism that Sukhumbhand's City Hall has prioritized saving central areas over relieving the flooded outskirts. 

Migrant workers

"They are using the opportunity to exploit workers," says Aung, slamming Thai immigration officials and Burmese brokers for extorting Burmese migrants fleeing Thailand's flooding. "I have never seen anything as bad as this," he added.

Aung used to work as a broker in Thailand, part of a sometimes-reviled network who, for an often substantial fee, help migrants find work and living quarters in Thailand. Unscrupulous members of the profession often collude with traffickers on both sides of the border as well as brutally exploitative employers in Thailand.

Leaked information from inside the immigration detention center near Mae Sot—the main land border crossing between Thailand and Burma—suggests that 30,000 Burmese trying to head home have been detained there during recent weeks, as floods close factories and inundate their often ramshackle homes.

Those with full official migrant worker accreditation in Thailand generally can do their border crossing without excessive hassle. However, for those whose ID only permits them to live in the area where their employment is based, or for those without any documentation, fleeing the floods is only the start of their ordeal.

In Samut Sakhon, a fishing port 40 minutes southwest of Bangkok with tens of thousands of Burmese fisheries workers, "brokers charge 2,400 baht for travel to Mae Sot," says Aung. "They then load 150 people onto a truck with room for no more than 50." Then they make the eight or nine-hour road trip to the border.

Once there, those without papers are detained by police and immigration officials and can be "fined" for breaches of their work permits, before being deported overnight across the border into Burma. They are then easy prey for traffickers such as the Karen border guard force—formerly the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—a Karen ethnic militia affiliated to the Burmese Army.

However, it is not just the informal shakedowns that are devastating Burmese migrants and those working to assist them. Aung says that all formal costs for migrants wanting to return home should be waived during the flooding crisis, not only as a charitable gesture but also as an additional preventive measure against traffickers and exploitative brokers.

"Removing all formal costs for migrants returning home, whether re-entry permit costs or travel costs, must be immediate. Otherwise migrants who have suffered once in this disaster will suffer again, at increased risk of trafficking and debt bondage," he says.

The Burmese authorities have protected key gates during the daytime, and have been providing food and water transport onward to Pa'an inside Burma, as well 4,500 kyat to the returning migrants, according to sources at the border. However, now it appears that deportations from the Thai side at Mae Sot are taking place during the night.

"Night time deportations are dangerous. International standards dictate deportations should be taking place only in the day. Night-time deportations have to stop," says Andy Hall, a migration policy expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

In areas of flood-devastated Pathum Thani, a suburb on the northern outskirts of the vast Thai capital, mafia figures are keeping Burmese migrants as virtual prisoners in waist-high water, now sitting stagnant and stinking for up to three weeks.

"If they want to leave, they have to pay," says another NGO worker who helps Burmese migrants in the area, adding that just 5 to 10 percent of the Burmese workers who usually live there now remain. "But many have no valid papers," he adds.

However, it is not just shady mafia figures who are taking advantage of migrants to make a quick buck on the back of the flooding. "One employer in Pathum Thani wanted 7,500 baht from migrants who needed their passports returned to go home to Burma," explains the NGO worker. Thai employers often hold the passports of migrant staff as a means of control.

With 2 million to 3 million Burmese migrants in Thailand, there are about 1 million living in flood-affected areas, according to the Thailand Labour Ministry. "Nobody really knows how many migrants are affected by the floods," says Hall. "Some say 200,000, some say at least double that."

Despite this high number, there appears to be only one shelter for Burmese migrants affected by the crisis—Wat Rai Khing in Nakhon Pathom outside Bangkok—and on Friday afternoon the Thai government announced that almost 500 mostly Burmese migrant workers would be evacuated from there to Ratchaburi, west of Bangkok.

Simon Roughneen wrote this article for The Irrawaddy: A section was taken from another article he wrote for the Asia Times:

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