Ethnic Shan from Burma work on a construction site in Chiang Mai.

© 2007 John Hulme

(Bangkok) - The Thai government should swiftly act to end police abuse and discriminatory laws and policies against migrant workers and their families, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The February deadline for more than a million migrant workers to enter the "nationality verification" process or face immediate deportation creates the risk of further abuses and should be postponed until it can be carried out in a fair manner.

Human Rights Watch's 124-page report, "From the Tiger to the Crocodile: Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand," is based on 82 interviews with migrants from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. It describes the widespread and severe human rights abuses faced by migrant workers in Thailand, including killings, torture in detention, extortion, and sexual abuse, and labor rights abuses such as trafficking, forced labor, and restrictions on organizing.

"Migrant workers make huge contributions to Thailand's economy, but receive little protection from abuse and exploitation," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Those from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos suffer horribly at the hands of corrupt civil servants and police, unscrupulous employers, and violent thugs, who all realize they can abuse migrants with little fear of consequences."

Human Rights Watch said that migrant workers face an imminent threat from the Thai government's decision that all migrants must enter the national verification process by February 28, or face arrest and deportation. Eighty percent of the migrant workers in Thailand are from Burma. They are particularly at risk, as they face ethnic and political conflict in their home country. The costs of the nationality verification process, which can amount to two or three months of salary, are unacceptably high for these migrant communities.

Human Rights Watch said that unrealistic demands set by the Thai government, coupled with a complicated and unregulated nationality verification process, could lead to mass deportations of migrants from Thailand to Burma and situations that could result in fundamental human rights and labor rights violations.

Police abuse migrants with impunity. A Burmese migrant told Human Rights Watch that she witnessed two Thai policemen in Ranong repeatedly kick a Burmese youth in the chest, killing him, because he did not reply to their inquiries in Thai.

"Many Burmese were watching and nobody went and helped because all of the people were afraid of those police, so nobody said anything about this killing, and nobody informed the police station," said the witness. "When I saw this [killing], I felt that we Burmese people always have to be humble and have to be afraid of the Thai police. I feel that there is no security for our Burmese people [in Thailand] or for myself."

Local police and officials frequently ignore or fail to effectively investigate complaints. Provincial decrees and national laws prohibit migrants from establishing their own organizations to assert their rights, while restrictions in policy on changing employers, moving outside designated areas, and convening meetings with more than a handful of persons leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation and ill-treatment.

Another migrant worker told Human Rights Watch how two armed men approached her in the rubber plantation where she worked, shot her husband dead in front of her, and then both men raped her. Despite a suspect being named in a police report, the police did not pursue the case.

"I am Burmese and a migrant worker. That is why the police don't care about this case," she said. "My husband and I are only migrant workers and we have no rights here."

Migrants reported constant fear of extortion by the police, who demand money or valuables from migrants held in police custody in exchange for their release. It is not uncommon for a migrant to lose the equivalent of one to several months' pay in one extortion incident.

"Many officials and police treat migrant workers like walking ATMs," said Adams. "They are just part of a system that robs and mistreats migrants wherever they turn."

Human Rights Watch found that in several provinces decrees by provincial governors have increased migrants' vulnerability by enforcing prohibitions on use of mobile phones and motorcycles, imposing harsh restrictions on movement, outlawing migrant gatherings, and enforcing nighttime curfews. These repressive decrees reflect the treatment of migrants as a national security problem instead of as part of a global phenomenon of the movement of people for economic, environmental, and political reasons.

"If the Abhisit government really is reformist, it should immediately abolish the provincial decrees that keep migrants effectively held under lock and key, bound to their job sites, and cut off from the outside world," said Adams.

Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to establish an independent and impartial commission to investigate allegations of abuse by police and other authorities against migrants. Such a commission should have the power to subpoena, require presentation of evidence, and recommend criminal and civil charges against abusers. It should make public reports on a periodic basis.

"Life is extremely uncertain and unsafe for migrants in Thailand as they flee one difficult or deadly situation into another," said Adams. "They are a living example of the Thai proverb which describes how the vulnerable ‘escape from the tiger, but then meet the crocodile.'"