Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Give Rohingya migrants a second chance

The Nation
August 14, 2013, 6:59 pm

Give Rohingya migrants a second chance
The Nation August 13, 2013 1:00 am
Rohingya boat people

Instead of punishing, abusing and exploiting refugees, Thailand should be prepared to offer them economic opportunities

Rohingya boat people continue to flee Myanmar, where they are barred from citizenship, to seek better lives elsewhere. Many of them end up in detention centres in neighbouring countries, particularly Malaysia and Thailand.

When it comes to refugees, Thailand always claims the high moral ground. Over the years it has provided shelter to those fleeing war and persecution in Cambodia, Laos and other Southeast Asian countries. Those who claim to have fled from political conflict at home live temporarily in refugee camps along the border. Those who seek an escape from economic hardship at home can find jobs here if they manage to get legal documents and are properly registered. Others work illegally until the authorities catch them.

But is our humanitarian record that good? With regard to the Rohingya, Thailand has done the same as other countries - locking them up behind bars. Some have died in custody. It seems that no one really cares what goes wrong.

The Rohingya have fled from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and from western Rakhine State, to seek jobs and better lives here and in Malaysia. Thousands of these people have been working here for years, saving money for their families. But the authorities are targeting many of the newcomers, perhaps as a result of recent communal conflict in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims. Others are victims of human traffickers and are still sent to jail because they're illegal migrants, having entered the Kingdom without permission. Typically they are convicted, serve time in jail and then deported, but some die behind bars before completing their sentences. After suffering perilous sea journeys, then abuse at the hands of traffickers and the authorities who often act in collusion, these people have every reason to curse their bad luck.

Thai authorities have no reason to mistreat these migrants. Most Rohingya - and indeed most other refugees from neighbouring countries - have committed no crime apart from illegal entry. Of course most Rohingya have no legal documents, but that is hardly their fault since they're denied any such documentation by the Myanmar government.

With or without documents, they still have the right to live, work and support their families. Illegal migration is not a serious crime, but many states, including Thailand, treat such intruders as if they were murderers, allocating huge sums of money and resources to control and punish them.

Tough punishment, some officials say, is a deterrent to foreigners considering entering the country illegally and taking jobs from Thai nationals. That is wrong thinking. The Rohingya and other migrants from Myanmar are an essential and irreplaceable component of the Thai economy. They do the dirty, backbreaking jobs Thais don't want and they are paid low wages. Many are exploited in conditions of virtual slavery. They come here with nothing and they help to build the economy. Employers are delighted to exploit this cheap source of labour.

Thailand should be doing more to help the Rohingya boat people. With correct organisation, fair documentation and supervision, and decent wages and working conditions, they can still play a significant role in developing the national economy.

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