Mu Research Expo 2012


Aphichat Chamratrithirong
31 October 2012

Chairman of Mahidol University Council
Vice Chairman and Members of Mahidol University Council
President, Vice President, and Members of Mahidol University Administrative
Faculty Members and University Officials
Distinguished Participants
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honor for me, on behalf of Mahidol Migration Center at the Institute for Population and Social Research to address the Queen Sri Savarindira and Prince Mahidol Commemoration Conference and Mahidol University Research Expo 2012 : Mahidol University Research Toward ASEAN Community on the issue of population and social perspectives concerning cross border migration in Thailand. I want to express my appreciation to Mahidol University for hosting IPSR, Mahidol University 2 this important session of the conference on this vital topic for Thailand. It is my privilege to have this opportunity to share the work and research visions of all of my colleagues at IPSR with such an important audience and at a crucial time for Thailand, entering as we are, the agenda of the ASEAN Economic Community, for which migration and migration policies are one crucial aspect. In this respect, I would like to acknowledge the research and academic contributions from all my colleagues at IPSR in the preparation of this presentation.

Before I begin, do you know that

Migrant workers from neighboring countries of Thailand perhaps add up to more than 2 to 3 million people in our country, and what if we say today that the figure could well be up to 4 to 5 million people. That figure is 10 percent of the Thai population or could be up to 20 percent of the Thai labor force. The likelihood is also that, about half of them intent to or will finally end up settling down in Thailand. Do you know how Thai people feel about this? Will Thai society change? And how do you feel about it? Is this something we should welcome or not?

And before I deal with Thailand specifically, migration happens across the world, and so it is worthwhile thinking about what happens in other countries also.

What is it like to have a society where many or even the majority of the population in the country are migrants or contract workers?

Based on the UN estimates, countries like Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have up to more than 80 % of their population consisting of cross border migrant workers. Singapore and Hong Kong also have about 40 percent of their population made up of migrants. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, the United States and Canada have the largest migrant stock of all countries. Theyalso have migrant population accounting for 10 to 20 percent of their populations. Depending on how these contract workers and some irregular migrants are managed, the way of life of people in these countries has changed a lot. The question is whether this is for the better or worse. Is it unavoidable anyway? These are questions we need to explore.

Number of migrants and their basic demographic data can be an issue of conflicts in a country. International migration experts, Dr. Massey and his colleagues have studied several of the conflicts that have arisen from changes in American policy towards migration from Mexico. They document how a relatively non‐political labour flow became politicized after 1986 and caused enormous economic and social costs to migrants and residents and the country. They also suggest policies that should be enacted that could reduce the conflict that has arisen. Central to their argument are estimates of the changing numbers and trends in immigration, particularly relating to undocumented immigrants.

These are some of the reasons why population and social data and perspectives of immigration to Thailand are such an important issue for us today. And the role of Mahidol University on this is crucial.

My main aim today is to explore the evolving debate of cross border migration to Thailand. Current debates about migration in Thailand are often limited by a lack of perspective regarding its historical role, current impacts, and future prospects. Today, I will address some of the existing gaps in this debate and advance the discourse about the role of cross border migrants and migration in Thailand. I will begin by briefly reviewing the current situation of cross border migration to Thailand, and why some academics and commentators raise warning signs regarding this issue. My goal is to show that although there are indeed stresses and strains in relation to migrants in Thailand, we can misdiagnose these problems and fail to find solutions if we engage in these debates without proper evidence and research on migration.

Thus the outline of my presentation will be:

  • Overview of current context of Cross Border Migration in Thailand
  • Why there are so many irregular migrants in Thailand
  • What are the government’s responses
    • 1990s ‐ Amnesty program
    • 2009 – Periodic registrations
    • 2003, 2004 ‐ MOUs
    • 2011 – National verification process
  • Estimated number of migrants and their settlement patterns
  • Threats and challenges
  • Strengths and opportunities
  • Migration management and good governance
  • Research management towards Harmonies in Diversities
  • Conclusion

May I first give overview of the current context of Cross Border Migration in Thailand.

Thailand continues to be an important migration hub in South‐East Asia. We host vast numbers of regular and irregular migrants from Cambodia, the Lao PDR and Myanmar as well as other neighbouring countries including Vietnam and Yunan Province in China due to sustained economic growth and a robust labour market. In July last year, the World Bank upgraded Thailand to an upper middle‐income economy based on gross national income per capita ‐ which in 2011 was $4,420 (US). This is 11 times higher than that of Myanmar, five times higher than Cambodia, and almost four times greater than Lao PDR. Approximately one third of the population in these countries is below the official poverty line. With differing levels and distribution rates of economic development throughout the region, it is not surprising that Thailand has been a key destination for regular and irregular migrant workers from Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar since the late 1980s.

Why there are so many irregular migrant workers in Thailand.

Migration registration data from Ministry of Labour suggests that the vast majority of migrants in Thailand are from Myanmar – 80%, compared to about 10% each of nationals from Cambodia and Lao PDR, although migrants from Cambodia increase rapidly this year. Since the 1980s, ongoing conflict in border areas, especially in eastern Myanmar, has displaced up to a million people.

Although some migrants fled from areas of ongoing conflict, the majority of migrants from Myanmar are actually not from direct conflict zones but are rather in search of better economic opportunities due to the high levels of poverty and unemployment and decades of economic and social mismanagement in their home country. Statistics from the Ministry of Labour suggest that most migrants from neighbouring countries work in the fishing, seafood, agriculture, construction, and service industries – and because these sectors are largely informal or unregulated, they attract the greatest number of irregular workers. Moreover, because the borders of Thailand are often mountainous and national boundaries are not clear or not clearly demarcated, highland populations and other groups historically crossed between countries with little regard for their official status. Restrictive immigration policies during the 1990s, and rapid economic development with low skilled labour shortages add to the current situation of labour demand. It is therefore not a surprise that labour smuggling networks increased very quickly.

The Government’s Responses.

The Government of Thailand in the past has been somewhat slow to develop policies to manage low skilled migration, and has not created a clear, direct and holistic long term policy to manage irregular migration. Since the 1990s, irregular migrants and their employers have taken advantage of an almost yearly amnesty programme initiated by the Government. The last opening amnesty, held from 15 June to 14 July last year, resulted that almost two million migrants became registered, as well as more than 165,000 employers. During an earlier registration period in 2009, 1.3 million migrant workers were registered. Collectively, the total number of cross border migrants registered was approximately 2.3 million, but likely, the actual number from our three neighbouring countries is believed to be probably much higher.

In addition to the periodic registrations, the Government of Thailand established formal recruitment schemes from Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar, based on a series of bilateral Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs), signed in 2002 and 2003. This first scheme, however, continues to face many challenges because it is costly, time consuming, overly bureaucratic, and overwhelmed with corrupt recruitment agencies working with officials on all sides of the borders. Despite being signed in 2003, the MOU with Myanmar has only recently become operational. Despite challenges, it is fortunate that the current increase of workers coming into Thailand from Myanmar through formal channels is a sign of more promising changes in Myanmar, improvement in the political situation in Myanmar, and changes which our colleagues at IPSR have been closely involved in. As you can see our picture here.

A second scheme developed by the Thai Government to address irregular migrants is the national verification process, which aims to regularize, the irregular but registered migrants by allowing them to acquire legal status through the issuance of temporary passports of up to 6 years in validity. The Ministry of Labour issued an announcement in mid June allowing migrant workers to renew their work permits during the period of 13 June to 10 October, this month, and to complete the national verification process by 14 December this year. Upon completion of the national verification process, migrants should receive rights, including social security, work accident compensation, health care, and unrestricted travel within Thailand and between Thailand and home countries. But again, the process tends to be long, overly complicated, unregulated and expensive. Migrant rights groups and critics are not very optimistic that the majority of migrant workers in Thailand will be able to access basic rights to which they should be entitled, following this verification process; therefore, large pools of low skilled labour will remain unprotected. Recent statistics suggested that a majority of migrant workers, although becoming fully regularised, in practice, have less access to official health services than ever before. This is certainly a concerning development so far.

Let me switch to the question: So how many migrants are in Thailand now and what are their settlement patterns?

According to the Thai Census in 2010, there are 2.1 million cross border migrants from Thailand’s three neighbouring countries. Other estimates tend to be somewhat higher. The figure shown here is the Thai population pyramid and migrants attached on the sides, so that you can have a feeling of its magnitude and connection.

A more recent study where IPSR worked with PATH organization and Health Systems Research Institute, reveals that there are as many as 600,000 migrants just in Bangkok, among these 240,000 of them are recent migrants who moved in only within one year. If the trend of new migrants is continuing and the majority of old migrants who had stayed for more than 2 or 5 years do not leave, which is very likely, within a couple of years, there could easily be more than one million migrants in Bangkok alone.

A study of 3,400 migrants from the three neighbouring countries to Thailand conducted by IPSR in 2010 revealed important settlement patterns of migrants. A large number of migrants reported that they wanted to stay in Thailand for good. In general, migrants stayed in Thailand for an average of six years. Half of them stayed in Thailand for more than five years, with almost 20 % for 10 years or more. The average duration of Myanmar migrants in inland provinces of Thailand is as high as nine years. More than half of migrants from Laos, for example, reported that they wanted to settle down in Thailand. In our MMC/IPSR study, published in Asia and Pacific Migration Journal this year, we documented that some permanent settlement of these migrants has already occurred in Thailand.

Migrants who have higher wages have the largest family size of 1.6 children and more than half of them still want to have more. Migrants do not just do the three D’s jobs for us. They also perform the reproductive function for us. Think about it and you can appreciate it, they are bearing children that become part of our society. Investment in their children is therefore worthwhile, like investment for our own society. Please ask yourself, what do you think? Researchers like to hear from you.

In Bangkok, among migrants from three neighbouring countries, about 25 % said they wanted to be in Thailand for life. These migrants to Bangkok were found to be stepping stone migrants who did not directly migrate to Bangkok from their countries but migrated from other parts of Thailand particularly the border provinces. The stepping stone process is seen when migrants first come

to the border provinces, work for a while then move further to more urban towns or to Bangkok. It means that once these migrants come to Bangkok, it will create some vacuum in the border provinces which will attracts more migrants from outside the country to replace them in the border provinces. The steppingstone suction process will lead to a phenomenal number of migrants.

As you can see in the pie‐chart of the Ministry of Labour of all migrant registration in Thailand, Bangkok accounts for about 25%.

f 25 percent of migrants are in Bangkok and the rest stay in the provincial urban and rural areas of other regions, the total number of migrants in Thailand could reach 4 to 5 millions in the coming years.

This is close to 10 percent of the Thai population. These 4 to 5 million migrant workers which may include not only migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, but also other countries in the region, will account for about 20% of the Thai labour force. In the future, perhaps one in every five workers in Thailand, will be a cross border migrant worker. This pluralistic society of Thailand is perhaps unavoidable.

Maybe we will not yet be like Hong Kong or Singapore where 40% of population are migrants, but our society will be similar to the US and many countries in Europe in this respect. The difference is that the extent of irregular workers is bigger in Thailand, because right now we have larger informal sector.

Let me debate further, how are we going to weigh the benefits against the challenges of Cross Border Migration into Thailand

Cross border migration can be critical threats to the country. These include violence and crimes, drug smuggling and human trafficking, conflicts against specific nationalities, border disputes, discrimination, and could be war of hatred. All of these can happen if over‐nationalism is accentuated, issues become political, things are mismanaged or the media become irresponsible and reside in realms of politics.

As our faculty of MMC/IPSR put it in their published research on the attitudes of the Thai people toward migrant workers, some Thai have prejudice against displaced persons and especially irregular migrants from Myanmar because they have, as our IPSR colleagues put it, “fear of the unknown”. Too often, these fears are not natural amongst our people, but are created by policy makers for political ends or for irresponsible officials for personal gains.

The impact of cross border migration is perhaps one of the most widely researched topics by IPSR academics, mainly because it is the most commonly misunderstood in public discourse. News broadcasts and media reports often portray migrants in a negative light, and IPSR research has shown that around 50% of respondents in the North perceive migrants more as a problem than an opportunity, citing concerns about migration leading to a rise in crime and a threat to personal security. Irregular or unregistered migrants were seen as an even bigger problem and threat. These over anxieties and fears are out of proportion and not in line with the hard facts. It is for this reason that IPSR recently started a programme to work with domestic journalists on these issues through a seminar and verification with fieldtrip programme to migrant communities.

What are the sources of these misconceptions and negative perspectives against migrants? These are things that we have to research further and more in depth, and find ways to solve the problem.

Migrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar generally move to improve their welfare and livelihoods.

IPSR studies of migrants have shown that these expectations are at least partially fulfilled. Yet, our research has also shown that the experience of cross border migration is not without its downsides. Migrants are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. Low skilled, cross border migrants, and, in particular, ones with an irregular status are especially vulnerable to exploitation by employers particularly of small scale factories or workplaces, recruiting agencies and officials. As Thailand’s migrant abuse becomes more globally recognised by foreign government and United Nations agencies, the impact on export from our country (for example the shrimp industry) may well be threatened.

A recent situation analysis on health system strengthening for migrants in Thailand conducted by our health economist at the Institute for Population and Social research reveal that barriers include the lack of legal identification and health cards, the time consuming nature of a hospital visit, the need to travel long distances, language, and fees charged. More worrying is recent evidence suggesting that fully legal workers may be falling into gaps of enforcement of social security laws, which is technically leaving them without any health care at all. From a public health perspective alone, it is critical that policies are developed to ensure all migrants have access to the health system.

Migrant health should not be seen as a ‘cost’, but as an ‘investment’ for migrants and for Thailand as a whole. Providing preventive and promotive health care is more cost‐effective than treating migrants with advanced health conditions. In summary, using health issues and children’s education as examples, we argue that Thailand’s migration policies ought to be framed around principles that guide us towards a more healthy open economy and integrated social justice society that serves our collective interest.

Participatory researches with civil societies are needed to find ways and processes to think together with the communities about the benefits of 
our investment in migrants and migrants’ children.

With all these challenges and threats, yet there are strengths and opportunities of cross‐border migration in Thailand.

The strengths are
- demographic strengths
- economic strengths
- and opportunities for social strengths

The demographic strengths include the ability and ways to fill the gap of the labour shortage and the end of the demographic advantages Thailand used to have, due to the continuing fertility decline for more than three decades. The replacement of labour by migration is, as also recommended by the UN, the most effective demographic solution, unlike the conventional replacement of a new generation by fertility, or what we call the reproductive replacement which takes a period of one whole generation to fulfill the gap. But by migration we can fill the gap within a year.

According to the country expert meeting on cross border migration in Thailand organized by MMC/IPSR last year and its Thailand Migration Report 2011 developed and compiled by MMC staff and published by IOM, the economic aspects of cross border migrant are discussed intensively. Cross border migration is seen as a phenomenon creating an economic dilemma in the Thai labour market. The problem is that Thai native workers who do not have high skills to take high skills jobs could not compete for jobs with migrant workers who are satisfied with lower wage.

Low‐wage migrants can lead to immediate economic growth, because short‐term investment in labour‐intensive industries can be easily promoted and the country can gain its regional competitiveness. The process of changing to the new industrial structure of Thailand needs time for djustment. The informal and irregular migrants are important during the economic restructuring and adjustment period.

However, the dilemma is that in the long run, the economic restructuring and increase in productivity will be delayed and the country’s goal of a knowledge‐based economy will never be attained. The government has to intervene to promote and invest in research and development, and human resource development, rather than having short sighted view of labour as labour and not in the human resource perspective. The challenging role of the government is how to enhance the country capacity of technological application to create value‐added in the productivity. Promoting social protection including the minimum wage scheme to cross border migrant workers, in the same way as the Thai workers will help reduce the disadvantage of the Thai low skill workers, and move everyone toward the higher level of productivity. This will not induce more migrants because no industries will, or will be allowed to hire under‐waged migrants anymore. We have to put an end to the period of under‐waged migrants. The complete enforcement of law, step by step, on the employers, not primarily on the migrants, is crucial to prevent these businesses from taking advantages of making what our IPSR economist calls, “rent‐seeking activities”, that is, running for profit without real productivity.

If data and information are available and good research is conducted, and importantly, if migration management is effective, then we can attain our aim of technology‐based, and knowledge‐based economy soon. At the same time, we can increase the skills of migrants as well. It will be a win win situation both for our own country development and their home country also. In the context of the ASEAN Economic Community, we can then contribute as well as take advantage of the free movement of the high skill labour and the professionals within the ASEAN countries. For the low‐end investment and production, we can outsource the capital‐intensive industries to relocating factories outside Thailand also.

For the issue of cross‐border migration, the aggressive elimination of the 3D’s jobs, Dirty, Dangerous or Difficult and De‐human, among the irregular migrants should be sincerely addressed. We can address the Dirty jobs by sanitation codes imposed to all employers, Dangerous and Difficult jobs by safety code and increased use of appropriate machineries and equipments, and Dehuman jobs by appropriate international standard work‐hour and compensation code, and with minimum wage of 300 bath and with all benefits, all similar to Thai workers. It should be stressed that regulations have to be strengthened primarily among the employers, and not among the migrants. As for the migrants, they have to be promoted and empowered. They should be able to form organisatons and unions, as their collective voice, where they can also regulate among themselves. All these can reduce mis‐understandings and promote good governance.

Remember: There are no illegal labour migrants. There are only illegal employers. Treating migrant workers as good as native workers with strong enforcement of law, again, will not invite more migrants to the country, because it is not so cheap to hire migrants anymore. Migration management means three schemes, regulation, protection and promotion.

With these three dimensions of good management, with the minimum wage standardized, the number of migrants will be corrected to be appropriate and correspond to the real demand under the country’s goal of restructuring the economy to the higher level of production and services.

New and perhaps, international approaches to managing migration (remember ‐ including regulations, protection and promotion) are needed in order to maximise its benefits and opportunities. The assumption that migration is strictly a national issue to be handled unilaterally by one government is no longer valid. International, national, and regional migration policy reform is required to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This challenge means we need better data, evidence, and research on migration that addresses the concerns of migrants, communities affected by migration in both sending and receiving countries, civil society, and government.

To achieve this, migration researchers should not spend their time looking at short‐term narrow research questions in isolation of one another. We must also be cautious that our research does not become policy‐driven – that is when, research questions, methods, and even findings are shaped by needs of policy‐makers or any one interest group. We need research management and research production.

We have to start with a question: what are the best scenarios of a pluralistic society of Thailand that we want to see: Migration of labour has been very important to Thailand as our society ages and fertility, even now under replacement level, continues to decline. We need to recruit work force by good immigration policy also agreed upon bilaterally or among ASEAN countries.

At the end, do we want to have a country with no migration nor immigration, or a country of what we call “harmonies in diversities’ which is also a vision of Mahidol University.

In conclusion, I suggest that it is time to revisit some old questions, because they will require new answers in an integrated approach:

  • First: What is the nature of citizenship among ASEAN countires? What do we want for ourselves? A closed country and an aging society, 
    or a demographically balanced country with Harmonies in Diversities.
  • Second: For migrants, what are the factors that influence their sense of belonging, integration, and attachment in Thailand?
  • Third: Apart from migration regulations, how do we move further towards the protection and promotion of migrants? What access do
    migrants have to resources needed for social, economic, cultural, and political integration?

  • Fourth: What do we, and migrants need to do to facilitate the social integration and at the same time, protection of migrants’ identities and cultures?
  • Fifth: How do we overcome discrimination and show it to the world, that we promote equality and just societies, up to, or even more than the international standards?

  • Sixth: How can we strengthen the role of public policy and mass media to counter negative attitudes and discrimination towards migrants, and in promoting the social and cultural integration of migrants in our new pluralistic societies?
  • And Lastly: What data and research management are needed to answer all of these questions?

Embracing migration is in our collective interest. But are we ready for what the future might bring? And what role may we play in providing scholarly guidance in shaping this future? Perhaps more and continuing data collection and timely research activities and research management for evidence‐based policy and planning and for major decision makings are increasingly called for. Thailand needs guidance and information for the good migration governance and management. We have to do all this against time to be well prepared for the ASEAN Economic Community in |2015. And it is with all of these questions that I thank you very much for your attention. - Revised: Jul 12, 2023
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