Why this face frightens the average Thai

BANGKOK, Thailand – Picture a class of migrants, hungry for work, pouring across a rugged land border by the millions.

Many natives on the other side regard the migrants as job-stealing invaders. Yet, if they were all deported, the economy would collapse.

This is a familiar script in the U.S., where Mexicans and other Hispanics play the role of the border crossers. Recast them as Burmese, Laotian or Cambodian, and you’ve got Thailand, where the society’s regard for illegal immigrants often parallels America’s.

Encircled by impoverished countries, perpetually in need of dirt-cheap labor, the kingdom has attracted more than roughly 3 million illegal migrants, according to the Thai government. Like America, conventional wisdom holds that illegal foreign workers — namely Burmese — seek work too gritty or exhausting for most Thais.

Now, as part of a global push to relax the world’s immigration laws, the United Nations Development Program is prodding Thailand to help lead the way. At the Bangkok launch of U.N. report on global migration, the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva agreed this week that change was due.

“We realize that the most effective way to protect these migrants is to legalize their status and bring them into the formal labor market,” Abhisit said. Migration, he said, is simply an “expression of the freedom and desire of each individual to seek better opportunities in life.”

Most Thais, however, are unlikely to embrace the premier’s rhetoric. Poor migrants here are often seen as a threat.

In a poll on immigration policy, more than 72 percent of Thais called for the government to “limit/prohibit” immigration, according to the U.N. report. (Nearly 60 percent of Americans polled made the same choice.)

Unfettered by American-style political correctness, Thai entertainment openly portrays migrants as criminals or fools. Sitcom characters in native Burmese or Khmer dress often play the buffoon. “Khmen” — the Thai word for Cambodian — is a byword for uncivilized.

Most Thai news reports on Cambodians or Burmese recount drug stings, violent crimes or round-ups of illegal migrants. And during disputes with neighboring countries, nationalistic Thai message boards light up with taunts — often noting that after years of back-and-forth kingdom sacking between Burmese, Thais and Cambodians, the Thais ended up much more prosperous.

Fears that illegal migrants may steal jobs or deflate the value of Thai labor are also common. Thai cities attracting high concentrations of migrants have seen local wages decrease — but very slightly. A 10 percent increase in migrants, according to the report, typically causes a 0.2 percent local wage decrease and does not force higher unemployment rates.

“Fears about migrants taking jobs are generally exaggerated,” said Helen Clark, the U.N. Development Program’s administrator. “The debate becomes more shrill in times of economic crisis.”

The U.N.’s latest plea to Thailand — and nations around the world — is to accept the reality of illegal migration and tempt them out of the shadows. This would mean more temporary visas for low-skilled workers, cheaper immigration fees and allowing migrants to switch jobs.

For now, illegal migrants who register with the government are rewarded with temporary work permits that unlock some government services, including Thailand’s 30 baht (90 cents) per visit health care scheme. But travel outside of their local district remains prohibited. And the registration scheme, generally favored by most rights groups, is sometimes counterbalanced with strong anti-migrant laws.

A law approved last March encouraged Thai citizens to tip off police to the whereabouts of illegal migrants. If caught, the tipster can claim a reward equal to about 20 percent of the seized migrant’s possessions. Migrants caught can face up to five years in prison. But Thailand’s supply of grueling jobs — tapping rubber, stitching clothes or peeling shrimp — has continued to attract waves of migrants even in a down economy. And entering Thailand legally and securing legit papers remains unattractive.

According to the U.N. report, bureaucratic fees of acquiring work papers can add up to four or five month’s of a migrant worker’s salary. Coyotes, or human smugglers, typically ask for the equivalent of one month’s pay.

These disincentives only make tracking all illegal migrants impossible, said Vitit Munthaborn, a law professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“It’s easy to tackle white-collar workers. They flow very easily,” Vitit said. “It’s doubly difficult to tackle no-collar workers, particularly those who cross borders clandestinely.”