Thai PM sets up migrant ‘arrest centre’

Thailand’s prime minister has announced the establishment of a ‘special centre’ to target illegal migrants that fail to register under the government’s nationality verification process.

Under the nationality verification process, illegal migrants in Thailand will be required to return to their country of origin to register as legal workers, before returning to Thailand. The deadline for verification is February 2012, but migrants were to confirm their request for work permits before 28 February this year.

Right groups had complained that Burmese migrants risked intimidation from immigration officials when they returned to their country: the estimated three million Burmese migrants that make up 80 percent of Thailand’s migrant community have fled economic ruin and persecution in Burma.

But the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced on 2 June the unveiling of a centre authorised to “arrest, suppress and prosecute” migrant workers who don’t register under the process.

A document obtained by the Thailand-based Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) shows that the remit of the centre, which comes under the Ministry of Labour’s employment department, is to “[prosecute] alien workers who illegally entered the Kingdom of Thailand and are working underground”.

The actions of the centre will be coordinated with other government departments, as well as the Thai police force, army and navy, and chaired by Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Sanan Kajornprasart. Commanders of the police, army and navy will also hold senior positions.

It will receive funding from the Fund for Deporting Alien Workers, according to the HRDF translation, although nowhere does the document say that illegal migrants will be deported.

The Thai government has come under repeated fire for its treatment of Burmese migrants. Human Right Watch (HRW) said in a report in February that “[Thai] police abuse migrants with impunity…and treat [them] like walking ATMs”.

“The Thai police have shown no reservation so far in basically extorting, abusing, physically beating, torturing and killing migrant workers,” said HRW’s Phil Robertson.

The New York-based group also said that the nationality verification process was setting “unrealistic demands on migrants” and that the price of applying for the process “can amount to two or three months of salary” which is “unacceptably high for these migrant communities”.

The Thai government’s employment department chief, Jeerasak Sukhonthachat, said last month that it expected around 1.2 million Burmese migrants to register by the 2012 date; less than 85,000 have so far registered.

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