They come seeking employment, livelihood and, for some, refuge. Nearly all migrants from Burma support their families and communities in Burma by sending home money they earn in Thailand.
Migrants may also seek to establish a safe and stable life for their family in Thailand. The military dictatorship of Burma denies the existence of this pattern of migration to Thailand and consequently fails to safely provide its people the necessary documentation to leave Burma or enter Thailand legally. As a result, nearly all migration across the border to Thailand has been irregular and the migrants are completely undocumented. It is thus very difficult to estimate the number of migrants from Burma living and working in Thailand. The largest number of migrants from Burma to register for a temporary residence card was 921,492 in 2004, which probably only represents a third to a quarter of the total number of the migrants from Burma in Thailand.
To respond to the situation of migrants crossing the border without any documents, Thailand first put into place a system of registering migrants in 1992. The policy on migrants is renewed annually. Through these policies migrants from Burma are eligible to register for a work permit in Thailand for employment in certain labour-intensive industries, providing them temporary semi-legal status. The protection of the work permit is extraordinarily precarious, and migrants can immediately lose their status if they change employers, work or travel in a different location, or take action against an exploitative employer. The current move towards verifying the nationality of migrant workers and issuing temporary passports pursuant to a 2004 MoU between Burma and Thailand has been wrought with bureaucratic and administrative obstacles, undermining any potential enhancement of rights and ignoring concerns of migrants about risks of giving identifying information to the Burmese government.
Migrants from Burma face enormous hardships within Thailand; they live in constant fear of arrest, detention and deportation, work in the most dangerous and hazardous occupations with employers regularly flaunting the law and paying below minimum wage, encounter difficulties when accessing health services and are generally subject to discrimination in Thai society. Nevertheless, most migrants are prepared to persevere in Thailand and improve their situation, which is impossible for them to strive for inside Burma. Since MAP started in 1996, we have worked together with migrant communities as they increasingly stand up for their rights and strive to educate and empower themselves.