Exodus triggers moving targets

Construction workers at a site in downtown Bangkok. One to three million undocumented migrant workers live in Thailand. (Reuters photo)

Yu Yu fixes her eyes on the metal mesh door inside a waiting room that separates her from her two brothers locked inside a Phetchaburi prison. When her queue number is called, she rushes to the crowd gathered at the door. Inside, she undergoes a series of security checks.

Last night was exhausting -- Yu Yu, a 30-year-old Myanmar migrant, as well as three other workers from her homeland, had a sleepless night on a minivan that they were travelling on from Phuket, where they are based as low-wage labourers, to Phetchaburi province.

The journey had two purposes for the travellers -- to visit their loved ones behind bars and to get proof that they were victims of a trafficking gang.

On July 18, Yu Yu's two brothers and two step-siblings were arrested in Phetchaburi when the Phuket-bound double-decker bus that they were travelling on was pulled over by police.

Twenty-one migrants from Myanmar -- mostly workers based in Phuket as well as some from Surat Thani -- were detained and charged with "making and using fraudulent official documents".

The crime could land them a penalty of up to five years of imprisonment.

The bus was coming from the Myanmar border after the migrants had returned from Dawei to process passport requests.

The trip was quickly organised in response to the Thai government's implementation of new migrant worker law on June 23 that forced hundreds of undocumented workers to make a move across Thailand.

The latest migrant worker law introduced stricter fines and regulations for employers and migrants, leaving those who no longer fit the legal framework very vulnerable.

An estimated one to three million undocumented migrant workers live in Thailand.

The military regime later activated Section 44 of the interim charter to offer six months of indulgence to migrant workers and employers to report for registration and obtain new work permits. Passports are also now required.

On July 9, Yu Yu's brothers hopped on a Myanmar-bound bus with other migrants in Phuket.

Each of them paid 13,000 baht to Win Htike, a broker from Myanmar in his early 30s, who organised the transport and official documents, including a certificate from the Myanmar embassy and the Phuket Provincial Employment Office (PEO) approval letter for migrants to leave Phuket province. Thai law specifically limits how freely migrant workers can travel.

The documents were held by another broker who led the trip back to Phuket. However, when the bus was stopped in Phetchaburi, the passengers realised the trip leader was no longer there.

The trip leader had last left the migrants' documents with Yu Yu's brother, Nay Myo Naing, 23. The police demanded to see the documents and cross-checked the PEO letters with the office in Phuket. The office responded that the letters' codes did not exist in the system.

As it turned out, the letters obtained by Win Htike were faked.

The 21 Myanmar nationals on the bus were taken straight to a Phetchaburi prison.

According to police records, the 21 detainees admitted to the charges during arrest, but later rejected them at the police investigation stage.

"They've already lost the case -- they won't really have a chance to defend themselves," said Yu Yu while waiting her turn to visit Nay Myo Naing in jail.

"But how could my brother have faked the Thai official documents if he can't even read or write Thai? He can barely communicate in Thai. How he could he have understood what was going on when he was arrested?"

As she waited in line to see her brother, she asked an accompanying visitor, a Myanmar migrant herself, about the conduct for visitors since it was her first time seeing family in jail.

After her visit, she will head to the police station to explain her relatives' case and reaffirm how vulnerable it feels to be a migrant trying to prove their innocence.

WEEKS OF CHAOS

One week before Yu Yu's arrival in Phetchaburi, I made an appointment with a small group of migrants from Myanmar in a cafe behind Phuket's downtown market. The cafe is a popular place among the workers who can chat, drink and watch football on TV there. Some play rattle ball on the street outside the cafe.

They had just survived several "weeks of chaos" in early July when over 300 Myanmar migrants mass assembled in the market with the meagre amount of belongings they had.

One family was seen carrying a TV, the last belonging they could sell to fund their seemingly inevitable return to Myanmar. Several of those who gathered had no money at all since their employers had quickly abandoned them due to the new migrant worker law without any monetary compensation. However, many migrants fled their workplace at their own will.

They came to the market to determine their next steps.

Their move was provoked by tough measures imposed on migrant workers by the military government, which officials staunchly believe will solve Thailand's human trafficking issue.

In the US State Department's 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, Thailand was placed in the lowest-ranking category, Tier 3, but upgraded to Tier 2 on the watch list last year, where it remains this year.

According to the new migrant worker law, employers will face a fine between 400,000 to 800,000 baht for each undocumented migrant worker that they hire. If the workers hold work permits but are working in a different job than they are registered for, employers will be fined 400,000 baht per unregistered worker.

As for migrant workers themselves, those who are undocumented could be subjected to up to five years of imprisonment, or a fine of between 2,000 to 100,000 baht. If they are registered but not working in the job they are officially registered for, they could be dealt a fine of up to 100,000 baht.

Employers are now required to pay 20,000 baht to obtain a work licence. Migrant workers must also pay 20,000 baht for a work permit, and an additional 20,000 baht to extend it for up to two years.

The new penalties and costs are considerable for both employers and migrants. Critics say that the tough law will more migrants more inclined to rely on smugglers and corrupt officials to stay in Thailand.

At the cafe where we gathered in Phuket, the staff cooked free meals for the migrants. Legal migrants helped the illegal ones search for temporary shelters, while others pooled together transport expenses to make their exit plan more easy.

Brokers seized the moment to start printing out papers with their contacts, advertising aid for registration and transport services for migrants.

When Yu Yu popped up at the cafe to meet with friends, she had just returned from the Phuket police station. She had tried to explain how her brothers were wrongfully put in jail.

"They didn't do anything wrong," she insisted.

Next to her, the mother of an arrested migrant was on the verge of tears. A wife of another offender carrying her three-year-old daughter told friends she had no idea what to do next.

These women had a situation in common -- each had family members arrested who were holding Pink Cards, an identification card for migrant workers permitted temporary stays in Thailand for work.

After the new migrant worker law came into effect, brokers began approaching migrants from Myanmar in Phuket, who offered to help them make passports that would let them stay in Thailand.

Yu Yu visited the Phuket police station to file a complaint against the broker who had dealt her brothers' faked documents, but the officials only dismissed her claims.

After talking for several hours, the workers decided that the only solution was to identify other witnesses to testify to the Phetchaburi police.

That night, the group set out to search for the brokers. They managed to track down two of them, both Myanmar nationals -- Gu Gu, 46, and Naing Lin, 23.

In the three-hour inquiry, the two brokers stated that they weren't responsible for manufacturing the fake documents. According to them, they only helped escort the migrants, but another broker, Win Htike, allegedly managed the document registration. >>

>> The group convinced the brokers to give them Win Htike's phone number. After several attempts to reach him, he picked up the phone. Upon listening to the migrants' woes, he agreed to provide the necessary evidence to prove the detained family members' innocence, but he refused to take the blame.

"It wasn't me," he said to the group. "Thai people did these documents."

Since that phone call, Win Htike has been unreachable.

On the day Yu Yu went to Phetchaburi, she learned from Gu Gu that Win Htike had fled Thailand through the Ranong border. Reports say he could be in Kawthaung in Myanmar.

Relatives of Win Htike say the broker was under threat from a "very influential person" who could hurt his family if he revealed any information about the fake documents.

TREATED LIKE COMMODITIES

At the Khao Yoi police station in Phetchaburi, Gu Gu the broker looked very concerned. He hadn't been able to eat or sleep since the arrest of the 21 migrant workers from Myanmar.

"I thought that I could trust him [Win Htike]," he said. "I didn't mean to cause any of those migrant workers harm."

Gu Gu has worked as a broker for over a decade through which he has built up a positive reputation. This was the first case he had handled ending in his clients being jailed. He wanted to take responsibility and offer himself as a witness for the migrants' story.

During the police inquiry, Gu Gu stated that Win Htike owned a minivan and had connections with bus operators.

Brokers generally deal with several other brokers in order to do their work. Win Htike was one who Gu Gu had only known for a brief time.

However, since Win Htike seemed to be reliable, Gu Gu agreed to collaborate with him.

Brokers deal with Thai officials and individuals to help produce the necessary documents. They can stand in as representatives to employers, and also speak for the migrants when language barriers are an issue. However, when cases of fraudulence occur, the burden of the crime tends to fall on the migrants themselves.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported several cases of abuse against migrant workers, including murders and assaults, torture, extortion and poor treatment while in detention.

Many employers hold onto the migrant workers' passport and work permits in order to restrict their movement. If workers are caught without them, they can face major consequences.

Meanwhile, those who file grievances regularly face retaliation from police and ex-employers.

Due to the complexity of the migrant worker registration procedures and the inability of officials to respond in foreign languages like Burmese, these workers have to pay large fees to brokers to negotiate with labour management authorities on both sides of the border.

"The role of brokers originated from the failure of the Thai state to manage migrant workers with intense restrictions," said Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an assistant professor of anthropology at Chiang Mai University.

"Dependency on brokers allows migrant workers some flexibility and mobility. But that also brings the risk of exploitation by brokers and officials."

Ms Pinkaew, who studies migrant worker management, says that the Thai government's measures are based on policy that emerged with the rapid industrialisation of Thailand in the 1990s. Thailand required more migrants to sustain industrial and economic growth.

However, the state continues to view migrants as economic props rather than real people.

This idea persists in several examples of migrant worker law, including the limited mobility clause and the fact that they are only permitted to work in low-skilled jobs.

Brokers can often offer protection and opportunity to migrant workers, says Ms Pinkaew. They can help migrants seek new jobs, change locations and navigate new environments.

The new migrant worker law is only a tougher iteration of previous policies.

"The more the system restricts migrant workers, the more opportunity people have to exploit them," says Ms Pinkaew.

"Corruption is the root cause of most problems. We don't have the legal system here to investigate corruption effectively. This is how migrant workers turn into expensive commodities."

Following the announcement of the new law, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned officials to stop taking advantage of migrant workers.

Critics have said that it will take more than registration clauses to tackle a stubborn bribery culture. In addition, the perception of migrant workers as security threats has to change.

Recently, Immigration Bureau chief Pol Lt-General Natthon Phrosunthon told Thairath newspaper that having undocumented migrants creates a security gap that harms national safety since these workers cannot be tracked down when they commit crimes.

He mentioned the controversial murder case in Koh Tao in which two migrant workers from Myanmar allegedly murdered two British tourists. He further referenced cases of migrant workers murdering their employers.

The Department of Employment's director-general Waranon Pitiwan admits that the exploitation of migrant workers is a chronic issue and the government has tried to "educate workers to be aware of the threat of exploitation".

"Mainly, these cases are about foreign nationals exploiting each other," he said. "Most brokers are from their own nations. How can Thais trick Myanmar migrant workers when they communicate in different languages?"

As Yu Yu headed back to Phuket, she realised she would have little chance of seeing her brothers in prison again. The trip was costly, and she couldn't afford the cost of bail. Her brothers will be in jail until September or longer.

It's the high price they pay for the flight of freedom.

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