Thailand needs migrant workers; it’s time we protected them from exploitation here and persecution in their own countries Thailand is in the headlines again for all the wrong reasons. The world is now watching the government closely over the future of several hundred thousand migrant workers from neighbouring countries who may well be expelled from the country.

Of course, the main focus in this issue is Burmese migrant workers, whose verification process has now been extended until next month. The earlier, and still lingering, fear is that when the deadline expires, those Burmese workers who have not registered with the Thai authorities as migrant employees wild be sent back across the border.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been quite adamant that all migrant workers must respect the rule of law if they want to continue to work in Thailand. His firm stand on the recent repatriation to Laos of Hmong refugees surprised and disappointed the international community. But his repatriation policy has to some extent been vindicated because the Lao government has so far stood by its pledge given to the Thai government and the international community that the Hmong returnees would not be prosecuted. They have now apparently been resettled in various part of Thailand’s landlocked neighbour.

The country’s tough implementation of immigration procedures has caused comment throughout the world. Over the past three or four decades, Thailand has been quite open toward refugees and itinerant labourers, who have relied on the country’s tacit policy of welcoming migrant workers. There are no accurate statistics on the number of migrant workers in Thailand, but it is generally thought that at least three million – mainly from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and the Indian subcontinent – are working in various parts of the country. They have diligently contributed to the country’s economic progress and overall development in the past few decades. They still receive low wages and do not benefit from any kind of social safety net.

Officially, a total of 382,541 migrant workers were registered three years ago. The Thai government has called on illegal migrant workers – another 933,391 of them – to register their names before the end of this month to avoid any future expulsion. Lao and Cambodian workers have fewer problems working in Thailand because their countries’ political conditions are stable. Nobody in Laos or Cambodia faces sustained and regular persecution from their government, as do thousands upon thousands of Burmese at the hands of the military junta there. In the case of Burmese migrant workers, many have sought political refuge and a livelihood inside Thailand. For whatever reasons, including political, if they are sent back, their lives could be in jeopardy.

The Abhisit government, which has prided itself on upholding respect for human rights, must not diminish the hopes and dreams of these Burmese workers. Everybody knows that the nationality verification process inside Burma – which they will be subject to upon their return – will not be fair or just. This is especially true for those who are vocal against the military junta.

The Abhisit government should be patient and allow more time to process Burmese migrant workers. The one-month extension is a good move, but the government also has to be realistic to ensure that all migrant workers are properly registered. After all, they are vital to the Thai economy. This is the least we can do for these workers at a most difficult and worrying time for them. All concerned authorities must also follow the government’s guidelines, without abusing their power. They should by now have learned lessons from the past that despite Thailand’s generous policy of accepting refugees and migrant workers, the international community will not hesitate to criticise when Thailand metes out harsh treatment.

The time has come for us to give the people who do our dirty work opportunity, respect and hope.