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Southeast Asia faces backlash for migrant clampdown

UN warns that forcing migrants into hiding risks spreading Covid-19 in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: June 02, 2020 03:49 AM GMT

Updated: June 02, 2020 04:38 AM GMT

Southeast Asia faces backlash for migrant clampdown

Gross overcrowding at Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center in a photo leaked to UCA News in February. A facility designed to hold no more than 500 detainees often accommodates up to 1,200.

Authorities’ often heavy-handed treatment of migrants and refugees across much of Southeast Asia harms not only these disadvantaged foreigners but poses a health threat to local people as well.

A case in point is Thailand. Puttanee Kangkun, a senior human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, stresses that Thailand could end up paying dearly for marginalizing migrants and asylum seekers. She decried the frequent harassment and callous detention of migrants and refugees in the predominantly Buddhist nation. 

“Refugees, migrants and stateless persons without proper travel documents or legal status are subject to arrest and detention for violating Thailand's Immigration Act,” Puttanee observed in a commentary in the Bangkok Post.

Thousands of detainees are held at over a dozen immigration detention facilities around the country, including Pakistani Christian asylum seekers whose only crime has been that they have lacked valid visas for staying in Thailand.

Over the years Thailand has come in for plenty of flak from rights activists over authorities’ treatment of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The country, which is not a party to the UN’s Refugee Convention, employs millions of migrant workers and is home to large numbers of asylum seekers, including thousands of Pakistani Christians who fled their homeland in fear for their lives.

Yet migrant workers are often exploited mercilessly and asylum seekers are routinely treated as common criminals, rights activists say.

“Although migrant workers help to keep food and other services affordable in Thailand, awareness of their contributions is low and xenophobic sentiment is high among Thais,” Puttanee noted.

“This was particularly seen by the ugly spate of anti-migrant comments in Thai social media circles following reports of the outbreak of Covid-19 in the immigration detention facilities. This also explains the lack of concern felt by Thais reading reports of Rohingya refugees adrift on boats in the Andaman Sea.”

The problem is not limited to Thailand. In neighboring Malaysia, which is likewise home to millions of migrant workers, authorities have adopted a heavy-handed approach in dealing with certain communities, ostensibly to contain the spread of the disease.

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Last month several thousand migrants and asylum seekers were arrested in Malaysia, including Rohingya. Even women and children were rounded up and detained.

Yet such policies are counterproductive, the United Nations has warned.

“The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment, with negative consequences for their own health and creating further risks to the spreading of Covid-19 to others,” the UN said in a statement.

Numerous migrants remain at risk of contracting Covid-19 at overcrowded housing estates, shanty towns and detention centers in both Thailand and Malaysia.

In Singapore, nearly 25,000 migrant workers, most of whom are from India and Bangladesh, tested positive in April and May for the novel coronavirus at the crowded dormitories where they stayed.

The city state depends heavily on migrant labor, with 1.4 million foreign workers employed mostly in construction, manual labor and housekeeping. As many as 200,000 live in just 43 dormitories where each room has between 10 and 20 residents.

Many migrant workers and asylum seekers who begin exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 may do their best to ride it out rather than seek medical help, which could then expose them to the authorities in countries like Thailand and Malaysia where their legal status is tenuous as it is.  

In these nations frequent maltreatment of migrant workers, who often lack even basic rights, has caused them to languish on the margins of society. Such exclusion can pose severe social and health problems, especially during crises such as the current pandemic.

Most migrant workers come from disadvantaged backgrounds in their home countries with low literacy and educational rates. A recent survey of migrant workers in Thailand by the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration found that many remain largely uninformed about Covid-19.

Large numbers of migrant workers, it has been found, do not know how to protect themselves against the spread of the coronavirus that causes the potentially deadly disease.

Half of the respondents in the survey, which polled hundreds of migrant workers, said they were largely or entirely unaware of the need to wash hands frequently. Nearly half said they had little or no knowledge of the symptoms of the disease.

The main reasons for low awareness among these marginalized people included language barriers and a lack of adequate access to digital technology to access information.

“Covid-19 does not distinguish between Thais and non-Thais,” Puttanee stressed. “To prevent the spread of this virus, we must work together and respect the rights of all people in Thailand, including refugees, migrants and stateless persons.”

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