Connect to share and comment

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.

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.”