Karen people, who had crossed the Salween River into Thailand to seek refuge after airstrikes in eastern Myanmar, wait after being requested by Thai authorities to leave Mae Hong Son and return to Myanmar. (Photo: Ei Tu Hta community leaders/AFP)
Even as numerous people from Myanmar are fleeing rampant military violence and worsening economic conditions in search of safety and new jobs, most Thais would prefer not to see more migrants come, according to a new poll.
Conducted by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University last week, the poll asked 1,167 Thais nationwide about their views regarding migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar, which provides several million migrant laborers to Thailand.
Nearly 68 percent of respondents said migrants could cause more outbreaks of disease, while nearly 62 percent said foreign migrants could deprive Thais of jobs.
Nearly 54 percent of respondents said they thought the presence of more migrants could increase crime rates and threaten the safety of locals’ life and property.
This hardening of public attitudes toward migrants has been fueled in large part by an official narrative that has laid the blame on an ongoing second outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand on migrants from Myanmar.
Senior Thai government officials, including Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, have said that migrants from Myanmar who evaded disease control measures by sneaking into the porous border between the two nations late last year brought the coronavirus into the country.
As evidence, they cited the high rates of infections among groups of migrant workers from Myanmar working in the seafood sector in a province near Bangkok.
In response, many Thais have taken to social media to rail against migrant workers, whom they have accused of putting the lives of locals in danger by reintroducing Covid-19 after several months of zero documented local transmissions last year.
“Shoot all of them down since they don’t follow the rules,” a foreign news agency quoted a Thai citizen commenting on Facebook earlier this year.
“Kick them back to their country,” the news agency quoted another local.
The results of the latest poll have been announced just as several thousand ethnic Karen villagers have fled into Thailand after the Myanmar military used aircraft to bomb their villages alongside the country’s border with Thailand on March 28.
Video clips and photographs have shown villagers, including many children, trudging through jungles carrying their meager belongings in small bags until they reached safety in the Thai border province of Mae Hong Son.
The Thai government generally does not recognize the rights of asylum seekers such as ethnic Karen people to refugee status, which means these asylum seekers could be returned to Myanmar.
In the wake of increased violence and severe repression following a military coup in Myanmar on Feb. 1, Thai authorities have stepped up their efforts to detain people from Myanmar who enter Thailand illegally.
In the new poll, 65 percent of Thai respondents agreed with such policies by saying that border areas should be strictly monitored.
However, three out of five respondents also agreed that migrants are driven largely by economic concerns and come to Thailand in search of a better life.