Myanmar migrant workers flee Thailand, streaming into Myanmar border towns.  Credit:  Myanmar Red Cross

By Melissa Winkler, IFRC

Meals are assembled, packaged up and piled onto tables at a reception camp in the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy, in anticipation of another day’s influx of exhausted and anxious migrant workers streaming home from Thailand.

On this day, over a thousand returning migrants arrive –most voluntarily, some involuntarily—all in a state of panic over new fines and penalties for undocumented workers announced by Thai authorities in late June.

They are ushered into a reception camp set up by the government, where Myanmar Red Cross teams offer food, bottles of water, first aid, health services, psychosocial support and assistance organising onward transportation.

In all, over 35,000 returning migrant workers passed through the Myawaddy and Kawthoung border points and reception camps in recent weeks, hoping to obtain identity documents in Myanmar that will enable them to return to Thailand to work legally.

Cambodian Red Cross offering help and care to returning migrant workers. Photo Credit: Cambodia Red Cross

A similar situation is reported in Cambodia, where almost 10,000 Cambodian workers returned after  the new rules and fines were announced.

“Our volunteers have been providing the returnees with water and basic supplies, accompanying them to temporary shelters and offering phone calls so that they can contact relatives who are anxious about their safety,” says Mam Daro, with the Cambodian Red Cross. “Ultimately, they face the choice of getting documented so that they can work legally in Thailand, or staying home.”

Most of the foreign workers who left Thailand since the end of June are now returning. Thailand agreed to delay penalties on undocumented workers and the companies that employ them until the end of the year.  Thai authorities also opened temporary centres across the country where migrant workers can register for a certificate of identity and a work permit. The centres are open from 24 July to 07 August.

“Migrant populations need accurate information and support that enables them to make informed decisions,” says Helen Brunt, a Bangkok-based migration specialist with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Without critical information, migrant workers all too often fall prey to unethical labour recruiters who take advantage of their vulnerable situation.”

Over four million migrant workers are said to be employed in Thailand, forming the economic backbone of many Thai industries.  As many as two million are estimated to be undocumented.