When Myanmar began opening up to the world and showed determination to reconnect with the global economy, many investors here feared the pool of cheap labour in Thailand would soon dry up as migrant workers from Myanmar started to head back home. After all, who would want to endure back-breaking work for low pay and the constant threat of police extortion here when they could go home again and find new work opportunities?
That may well be true for Myanmar nationals and some other ethnic groups, but it is certainly not the case for the Rohingya Muslims who still face violent persecution in Myanmar.
Last year, the world’s enthusiasm at the prospect of political reform and an end to ethnic strife in Myanmar was quickly shattered by the outbreak of sectarian violence in Rakhine state. The bloodshed left about 200 people dead, more than 100,000 displaced and thousands of homes destroyed.
Widely viewed as illegal immigrants trying to steal land from Buddhists, the stateless Rohingya face deeply embedded sentiments of distrust and hatred among Buddhists not only in Rakhine, but across Myanmar. They are denied citizenship, legal existence, and basic rights including education, employment, the right to travel and even the right to marry and set up a family.
The hardship and hopelessness of their situation has driven successive generations of Rohingya men to work illegally in neighbouring countries to support their families back home. The perilous journey and life away from home used to be men’s business only. But the outbreak of sectarian violence last year changed that; now women and small children are also joining the exodus _ not to seek jobs, but to save their lives.
At the height of New Year celebrations in Thailand, a boat carrying 73 exhausted Rohingya men, women and children _ some as young as three years old _ was found stranded near Phuket. Authorities initially planned to give them food, water and fuel, as they usually do with Rohingya boatpeople, so they could continue their journey to Malaysia. They then signalled a policy about-face, deciding to deport them back to Myanmar by land, since leaving women and children to fend for themselves in the open sea would certainly harm the country’s image.
If deported by land, the Rohingya will be immediately fleeced by people smugglers at the border. There are reports that many who cannot pay to go to Malaysia are sent to work as slave labourers on Thai fishing trawlers or in plantations. Such irresponsible deportation makes Thailand a tacit supporter of human trafficking, the last thing the country should do when the European Union and United States are threatening trade sanctions.
If they are put to sea, authorities are needlessly endangering the lives of innocent people, and Thailand risks being hit with another international condemnation.
Both methods are wrong and inhumane.
This latest batch of Rohingya are not economic migrants. That the men brought their wives and children shows they are asylum seekers, and they should be treated accordingly, with a chance to seek refuge in a third country.
To solve Rohingya cross-border migration, the government must take steps with Myanmar and other Asean countries to ease the sectarian violence in Rakhine state. Meanwhile, authorities must honour the Rohingyas’ right to seek asylum. The inhumane policies of pushing them back to sea and deporting them by land must stop once and for all.