Thailand: Time to fix migrant policy

(Bangkok) – Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears to have finally smelt the coffee and woken up — albeit rather late — to the pressing need to tackle the smuggling of foreign migrants, which is one of the factors contributing to the country’s new coronavirus nightmare.

On Wednesday, Gen Prayut ordered the police to form a special committee to investigate state officials involved in migrant smuggling, following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Samut Sakhon.

With the order, the prime minister essentially conceded to the public for the first time that there are indeed state officials involved in illicit activities. This isn’t a surprise, as trafficking at such a large scale wouldn’t have been possible without some officials — probably high-ranking ones — turning a blind eye. It is well understood by the public that criminal networks are widespread.

The premier vowed to prosecute those who facilitate illegal migration, without exceptions. But how the order will be translated into action remains to be seen.

Illegal border crossings came under the spotlight just weeks ago, when a group of Thai women — some of whom were infected with Covid-19 — sneaked from Tachileik in Myanmar into Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district through natural trails which were almost openly used by both Thai and Myanmar citizens. One of the women, a Chiang Mai native, caused a scare as she didn’t self-isolate, despite having Covid-19 symptoms.

Back then, local authorities also pledged to tackle illegal smuggling operations, but not a single suspect has been arrested to date.

Only a few officials have ever been implicated, let alone arrested, for such illegal activities. One exception was Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, a former army adviser and head of the 42nd Military Circle in Songkhla, who was apprehended for human trafficking in 2015. Most of his victims were Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar to seek jobs in Muslim countries via Thailand. Lt Gen Manas was convicted of his crimes in 2018 and sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment.

A report by this newspaper this week provided details on how the smuggling was carried out — migrant workers would officially pass through the immigration checkpoint in Mae Sot using border passes, which allows them to stay in Thailand for seven days. Then, smugglers would take them in vans from the border, where they would pass three more checkpoints manned by soldiers, police and local officials, to whom they would pay 500 baht per head to pass.

This is just one example, but the pattern must be similar at other crossings, be it Chiang Rai in the North, Kanchanaburi in the West, or other border provinces.

Now that Gen Prayut has given the nod for tough action against these criminals, the authorities must find everyone involved. The hope is that they will not target only rank-and-file officers, but instead net the “big fish”.

At the same time, the government should realise that rampant smuggling is basically the result of unrealistic labour regulations that fail to respond to the high demand for workers in certain industries. These conditions drive some business operators, with the help of unscrupulous state authorities, to make a fortune out of exploiting foreign labourers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

The state, in the long run, will needs to revamp its migrant labour policies by plugging all the loopholes within them, so that smuggling will cease to be an option. In the meantime, it needs to crack down on crimes which take advantage of poor people seeking a better life.