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Myanmar migrants face never ending police harassment

Stark choice: pay the bribes, get arrested or get out of Thailand

Myanmar migrants face never ending police harassment

Samut Sakhon police check a migrant's papers

Stephen Steele, Samut Sakhon

October 21, 2013

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In the central Thailand seaport town of Samut Sakhon, migrant workers from Myanmar who come seeking a better life often find themselves prey to corrupt police who demand bribes and coerce the migrants to give up their meager earnings in exchange for freedom.

On a recent Saturday night, Thai police roamed Samut Sakhon’s main street, stopping, frisking and detaining more than a dozen of the migrants. Police demand to see passports and working papers. Failure to produce either results in arrest, with the migrants forced to pay heavy fines or face deportation.

Some who spoke to said they are often arrested even though they do have the necessary documents on hand.

Marcu, a thin-limbed, slightly built 20-year-old from Kawthaung, Myanmar, said he is returning to his home state after only eight months in Thailand, his hopes for a better life thwarted by frequent stops and arrests by Thai police.

The factory worker, who carries his passport and working papers, said he had been unable to save or send money home due to the heavy fines he has paid police for himself and friends who were arrested.

“We would complain [to police], ‘why do you arrest us?’ But the police would say, ‘let’s talk in the police station,’” he said of his first arrest. At the station, Marcu said police offered him and two friends a choice: either pay 5,000 baht (about US$160) a person, or be formally arrested and eventually deported.

Marcu, who like the others who spoke to asked that only his first name be used, said he earns roughly 300 baht a day for his job at an aluminum factory. The 5,000 baht fine is equal to about a half month's pay.

This vignette and others shared with this month at the Marist Center for Migrants mirror a number of reports released recently by international NGOs, detailing human rights abuses against migrant workers in Samut Sakhon province.

In a report released last month by the Britain-based Environmental Justice Foundation, widespread human rights abuses were documented among migrant workers in Samut Sakhon’s seafood industry, including human trafficking, withholding of pay and documents, and bonded labor.

“Thai police ... frequently subject migrants – documented and undocumented – to harassment, extortion and arrest,” the report read.

In its 2013 report, the Global Slavery Index estimated Thailand to have 450,000-500,000 people living in slavelike conditions, with victims being mostly migrants from surrounding countries such as Myanmar.

Thailand’s low unemployment rate has resulted in a labor shortage filled by 3.1 million migrant workers. The report said that insufficient resources left migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. The seafood industry, in particular, has been implicated in the abuse of workers, particularly forced labor and trafficking, according to the report, released on October 4 by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

Father Albert Pho Kwah, a Myanmar native priest and chaplain for the St. Anna Catholic Center for Migration, said there was a general fear among the migrants that they will be detained and fined by police any time they leave their homes. He said the majority of the 500 Myanmar Catholics under his pastoral care have both a passport and work permit, but are still subject to random stops and home raids by police. Some migrants have also been victims of beatings by roving gangs.

“One of the Catholics who was coming here after work was surrounded by a group of men on motorbikes. The men attacked him and took his money,” Fr Kwah said. “He did not know who these men were or why they attacked him.”

In previous months, Fr Kwah said they were being stopped on their way to Mass and forced by police to pay a 500 baht fine, which resulted in a drop off in the numbers attending. He said the situation improved recently once most Catholics obtained all the necessary documents.

However, a walk through Samut Sakhon’s central market area tells a starker story. In one stop, a Thai police officer openly manhandled a migrant while frisking him. The police officer thrust his forearm into the migrant’s chest and shook him violently before motioning for a motorbike driver to take the worker to the police station.

Later, a migrant woman pleaded with police not to arrest a male member of her group, emptying the contents of her bag, while the male members of the group opened their wallets to show police they had no money.

Despite their protests, their friend was arrested.

“They are always looking over their shoulder," said Fr Kwah. "There is always that fear of the police.” 

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