(New York) - The suffocation deaths on April 10 of 54 Burmese migrants is a somber wake-up call that should prompt Thai authorities to end discriminatory policies and improve protection for migrants, Human Rights Watch said today.

Thai policies to date have done little to protect the rights of migrant workers. With few avenues to migrate legally and safely for work, many Burmese migrant workers living in Thailand are vulnerable to arrest and extortion by corrupt officials, and risk exploitation, abuse, and death.

On April 10, 2008, 37 women and 17 men suffocated in an unventilated truck while traveling in the Ranong province of southern Thailand not far from Kawthaung town in Burma. They were allegedly moving to an unspecified work site. Sixty-seven migrants survived the journey, and are now being held in prison for illegal entry. The driver of the truck fled the scene.

“These preventable deaths are the tragic result of people fleeing repression and poverty in Burma, only to find abuse and exploitation in Thailand,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai policies denying migrants basic rights contribute to such tragedies and urgently need to be revised or scrapped. These deaths put Thai authorities squarely on notice that reform cannot wait.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to immediately investigate the deaths in Ranong province and the serious situation of trade in human smuggling across Thailand’s border. It also called on the Thai government to provide assistance to the victims on humanitarian grounds rather than detaining and deporting them back to Burma, and to ensure that all migrants enjoy basic rights such as freedom of movement, association, and assembly.

The death of the 54 Burmese migrants is only the latest in a series of serious incidents involving migrants. Since the start of 2008, scores of Rohingya Muslims from Burma have drowned in the Andaman Sea trying to reach southern Thailand, a gateway to Malaysia. Instead of offering protection, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has recently announced he will detain them on a deserted island to deter more arrivals.

Despite the fact that the Thai economy depends heavily on the availability of cheap labor from Burma and other neighboring countries, in the past two years, Thailand has been increasing restrictions on the rights of migrant workers.A series of provincial decrees in Ranong, Rayong, and Pang Nga provinces have made it unlawful for migrants to go out at night, carry mobile phones, and ride motorbikes. Thai authorities have indicated the decrees may be extended to other provinces which are home to many Burmese migrants.

Prime Minister Samak has called migrant workers from Burma a “national security” issue, especially in those provinces such as Ranong, Tak, and Chiang Mai where Burmese workers constitute a high percentage of the population. This position has been put in place since the time of Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration.

“These deaths show what a deadly mishmash of illegality and regulation Thailand’s migrant labor law regime is,” Pearson said. “It’s a pressing humanitarian issue but it’s also in Thailand’s own interests: these workers are vital to the country’s economy.”

Last year’s nationwide protests and brutal crackdowns by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) increased political and economic hardships in Burma. The difficulties forced millions of Burmese to seek a better life in Thailand. However, only a fraction of an estimated 2 million Burmese migrants living in Thailand are legally registered to work.

According to Thailand’s Migrant Assistance Program in Chiang Mai, at the end of 2007, a total of 616,272 migrant workers from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia were registered to work in Thailand. Of that number 367,834 were from Burma. Registered workers have access to basic health care and carry registration cards to avoid arrest by police, but must also restrict themselves to one employer and location in Thailand. Unregistered migrant workers often face poor working conditions, low wages, exploitation by employees, and are prey to extortion by authorities and deportation to Burma if caught. While there is a bilateral agreement between the Thai and Burmese governments on managing labor migration, it has yet to be fully implemented, and the formal process is slow, expensive, and restrictive to certain occupations.

“If Thailand’s labor laws were followed across the board, fewer migrants would resort to illegal crossings or be susceptible to trafficking, and could travel and work with basic rights under law,” said Pearson. “It’s time for the Thai and Burmese governments to implement transparent measures that protect the lives and basic rights of migrant workers.”