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Why this face frightens the average Thai

Thais have a fear of illegal immigrants that parallels that of Americans. The UN wants to change that.

A Hmong hilltribe refugee boy stands in Ban Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province about 258 miles northeast of Bangkok on July 30, 2009. A total of 4,645 Hmong refugees who had fled Laos, settled in this village five years ago. The Thai authorities consider these people illegal immigrants and intend to return them to Laos. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)

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.”