Migrants struggle to return despite sealed borders
Businesses have reopened and begun hiring after the government eased lockdown measures, but migrant workers who returned home and waited for the Covid-19 outbreak to clear are now finding themselves on the outside looking in, unable to re-enter the kingdom.
The prospect of them coming back to work does not look good despite soaring demand for migrant workers in reviving the understaffed construction and fishing sectors.
The government has yet to reopen the border, and the Immigration Bureau (IB) is doubling down on efforts to curb illegal crossings to lessen the risk of Covid-19 infections from neighbouring countries.
Tightening border control
Pol Lt Gen Sompong Chingduang, commissioner for the bureau, said surveillance is being stepped up in every border province, especially adjacent to Cambodia, to curb the illegal entry of migrant workers.
Without jobs and money, many migrant workers left the country when it went into lockdown earlier this year. International labour NGOs have estimated about 50,000 Myanmar and 30,000 Cambodian workers have returned to their home countries. The number of migrant workers in Thailand, with or without work permits, was at 2.7 million before the outbreak of Covid-19.
In recent weeks, migrant workers sneaking across the border, many seeking a return to work, have been intercepted by police.
"The Thai-Cambodian border is seeing increased smuggling activities after the construction and fishing industries started recruiting," Pol Lt Gen Sompong said. "Police and security forces are paying extra attention to this side of the border."
Border officials have arrested hundreds of illegal migrant workers every month since April. The largest number was from Cambodia (400-500), followed by Myanmar (200-300) and Laos (70-80).
The IB is working closely with other government agencies, as the bureau does not have adequate resources to support crackdown operations against undocumented workers, he said. Soldiers, border patrol police, marine police and local officials have all been roped in.
Pol Lt Gen Sompong said immigration officials would boost intelligence-gathering and ensure businesses understand they are breaking the law when hiring illegal workers.
Paying to get in
Pol Lt Gen Sompong said migrant workers nabbed recently chose to illegally enter the country and voluntarily paid people smugglers to help them. He insisted none were victims of labour or human trafficking.
He said the crime has a certain pattern: Migrants pay a service fee to local brokers before the workers are smuggled into the country via natural corridors. He said the smugglers are usually Thais or foreigners who know the terrain, adding the migrants are then moved to the kingdom's central provinces for transit before they are dropped off at their final destinations by couriers.
"Despite the rough terrain, they can come in by foot," Pol Lt Gen Sompong said. "So, most of them cross the border on foot via natural channels.
"If [the migrants] don't know where to get hired, they will hire a driver," he added. "It's like taking a taxi."
While Pol Lt Gen Sompong admitted some local officials had taken bribes to turn a blind eye or even aid the illegal entry, the IB chief insisted these were isolated cases.
However, the migration situation may not be as clear-cut as some government officials have portrayed it.
Adisorn Kerdmongkol of the Migrant Working Group said several migrant workers who crossed the border illegally still had their valid visas and work permits. Some left the kingdom before the outbreak of Covid-19.
"They had to sneak back in individually, not in large groups, to a rendezvous point near the border where a hired van would pick them up," Mr Adisorn said. "[The migrants] think that because their visas and work permits haven't expired, they can pretend as if they hadn't left."
Calling for a reopening timeline
To avoid any confusion, Mr Adisorn said the government should come up with a timeline for migrant workers, so they know when the border will reopen. Doing so would prevent migrants from feeling pressured to enlist the help of smugglers.
The more precarious the situation is, the higher the smuggling fees are, he said.
He said establishing a timeline is in the best interest of Thai officials as well because it will help reduce the number of migrant workers seeking to cross the border illegally.
"The government should specify the types of businesses that can recruit migrant workers, so the workers can be sure they will get jobs and get prepared," Mr Adisorn said. "Returning to work has expenses."
The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) recently agreed in principle to allow business operators to bring back workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia under strict disease control measures, including the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, but the move is not yet implemented.
Quarantine expenses would range from 13,200 to 19,300 baht per worker, according to estimations by the Department of Employment (DoE) but the cabinet has yet approved the proposed price tags.
Mr Adison welcomes the move but said the government should hold talks with neighbouring countries about the quarantine expenses.
"To ease the financial burden from health screenings and the disease control measures on workers and employers, the government should decide how it can support [the migrants] or seek help from international organisations like [the World Health Organization]."
Putting health first
If the plan to allow migrant workers back is approved, Suchart Pornchaiwisetkul, director-general of the Employment Department, said there would be health and entry requirements for foreign workers to follow.
They would be required to obtain an entry permit from Thai diplomatic missions abroad, fit-to-travel certificates and health insurance. They must also comply with the kingdom's disease control measures.
After all, Pol Lt Gen Sompong urged business operators not to place their financial interest before public safety, adding social distancing and strict disease control measures must be observed in every workplace.
"Businesses should not resort to [hiring] illegal migrant workers, and they should not put their workers in crowded dorms," Pol Lt Gen Sompong said. "If they don't comply with health screenings and disease control measures, they will put themselves at risk."