Cross-border Migration Policy

Cross-border Migration Policy

Thai State Policy to Manage Irregular Migration from Neighboring Countries
By Kritaya Archavanitkul
Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University


I. Introduction

     In the distant past, the Thai state did not experience a massive influx of irregular migrants, but the changing situations in 1988 forced the government to acknowledge the existence of irregular migrant workers. The two main contributing factors are ‘the 1988 political unrest in Myanmar’ which drove hundreds of thousands of Burmese into Thailand and the booming Thai economy which required a large number of unskilled labors resulting in the private sector’s demand and pressure on the government to regularize the illegal workforce.

     Principally speaking, Thai state has never had a direct policy to manage irregular migration, only the policy for controlling the people who ‘enter the Thai border illegally’ has been employed. According to the Working of Aliens Act 1978, unskilled foreign workers were not allowed to work in Thailand. Since 1996 the government adopted a flexible approach. Citing article 17 of the Immigration Act 1979, the government relaxed its policy allowing undocumented migrants to work on a temporary basis. It started to issue cabinet resolutions and establish the framework for the legal registration of illegal workforce on a yearly basis since 1996. Migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia can register and apply only for work permits for menial and labour-intensive works. 

     To be precise, as irregular migrants from Thailand’s neighbouring countries entered Thailand without a proper travel document, they are permitted to work temporarily pending deportation by the Thai Government.  Other unskilled migrants from other countries such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are not allowed to work within Thailand.  This discrimination is not explainable by the Government.  This temporary permission has been extended on a year to year basis in recognition that migrants fill important gaps in the labour force and strengthen the Thai economy.  Until 2009, there have already been 14 cabinet resolutions directly concerning this issue (see Table 1).  Based on the cabinet resolutions from 1996 to 2010, two main approaches has been made – reactive and proactive approaches.

Source: modified from Kritaya Archavanitkul and Kulapa Vajanasara 2008 (Table 5).

    a    The 1996 Cabinet Resolution allowed migrants to register for 2 years.  In 1997, 88,644 people renewed their applications. If these 
             people are included among those who registered in 1998, the total number of migrant workers registered in 1998 was 179,555
    b    Special sector of employment 1 (has employer): fishing, agriculture, domestic work, construction, raising pigs and prawns.  Special  
             sector of employment 2 (no employer): working in warehouses, rice mills, brick-making, making water jars, and mining.  
    c    Manual laborers, fishing, seafood processing, factory workers, domestic workers, farm workers, garden workers
    d    Manual laborers and domestic workers.  Each province made its own decisions about what sector to allow.
    e    The number of 705,293 were from the renew of the 2004 registered migrants as of 30 August 2005.The number of 208,562 were the 
            result of cabinet resolution permitting the second round registration for migrants who were not registered before.The number of 
           460,014 were from the renew of the 2005/1 registered migrants as of 21 July 2006.
    f    The Office of Foreign Workers Administration, Department of Employment, Ministry of Labour
    g    Manual laborers and domestic workers working in 19 employment sectors of which the shortage of labour is evidenced.

II.  Reactive policy for migrant registration in the period 1996-2003

      Between 1996 and 2003, the government carried out seven phases of registration as follow:

  1. The Cabinet Resolution of June 1996 stated that irregular migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia were permitted to work for no more than two years, in 43 provinces, and eight industries: agriculture, construction, sea fishing, land freight, sea freight, mining, production and domestic services.  These industries were subdivided into 36 types.
  2. The Cabinet Resolutions of April and May 1998 permitted employers to employ migrant workers for another year.  These decrees stated that no more than 158,253 workers were allowed to register.  However, in practice only 90,911 employees registered.
  3. The Cabinet Resolution of 1999 permitted migrants to carry out 18 types of work, in 37 provinces.  These 37 included ten (10) border provinces, eighteen (18) provinces with large fishing industries and nine (9) provinces in the process of changing their production processes.  Altogether, 99,974 people registered for work.
  4. The Cabinet Resolution of August 2000.  It was now becoming clear that responding to problems of migrant workers was a regular undertaking.   The Decree enacted in 2000 used the same numbers, provinces and occupations as the previous year’s registration.
  5. The Cabinet Resolution of August 2001.  The change of government in 2001 led to a change in the rules for registering foreign workers.  Migrant workers were permitted to register in any province, in any industry.  This was also the first time that migrants who did not have a permanent employer were allowed to register themselves.  In 2001, the number of registered migrants increased to 568,249.
  6. The Cabinet Resolution of August 2002.  This decree permitted migrants who had registered in 2001 to extend their work permits.  The number of registered workers was, however, limited to 430,074.

III.  Proactive policy for migrant registration since 2004

      The Cabinet Resolution of April 2004 completely changed the registration system for migrant workers.  The main features of the decree were as follows:

     1. Both employees and employers registered.  Workers who were accompanied by their employers were entered in their employers’
           household registration forms.  Workers who were not accompanied by their employers, or who were casual laborers, could register
           themselves.  Conversely, employers who had not yet hired migrant workers, or who had not employed sufficient numbers to qualify as a
           registered employer, could state how many workers they needed. They could also, if they chose to do so, specify which one of the three
           countries they would prefer

       2. Dependents were also registered.  The registration process was divided into three stages.  In the first stage, migrant workers and 
           followers over 1 year old are to be registered in Tor.Ror. 38/1 system and receive 13-digit ID numbers beginning with 00 before applying
           for work permits.  No fee was required.  All people who registered, and who had their picture and finger print taken, were permitted to 
           stay in the country for one year.  In the second stage, people who wished to work were required to submit to a health check, which cost
           600 baht, and to pay for a health insurance card, which cost 1,300 baht.  In the third stage, migrants applied for a work permit.  The 
           registration fee was 100 baht, and the price of the permit was 1,800 baht.  Altogether, the cost was 3,800 baht.

                The conceptual basis for this system is to record the actual number of migrant workers rather than only those employed, as well as to
           constantly update the registry with timely reports of births, deaths and relocations like in the registration of other groups.

      3. Setting up a procedure for formalising irregular migration flows between countries.  According to the bilateral agreement 
           or memorandum of understanding between the Thai Government and the government of three countries (Lao PDR, Cambodia, and 
           Myanmar), the nationality verification (NV) procedure for migrants from each origin country has been agreed.  The NV for Laos 
           migrants and Cambodian migrants has started to conduct in Thailand since 2005.  Both governments would send the team to verify 
           nationality of their citizens.  Up to November 2009, there were around 80,000 undocumented migrants has been converted to be 
           documented migrants holding the travel document from their home country.  For Laos migrants, they would receive a temporary 
           passport issued by Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs while Cambodian migrants would get a certificate of identification issued by 
           Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour. 

                However, the NV procedure for migrants from Myanmar has begun in 2009.  The procedure has been extremely complicated and 
           slow as the NV procedure would conduct in Myanmar and consist of several steps.  By the end of 2009, only few hundreds of migrants 
           from Myanmar were passed all necessary steps of NV set up by Myanmar Government.  

               On 19th January 2010, the Thai Cabinet issued a resolution linking extension of migrant work permits to nationality verification. For 
           over 1.3 million migrants who received permits during 2009 and are willing to submit biographical information to their home governments 
           prior to 28th February 2010, they will receive permission to remain and work in Thailand until 28th February 2012, so NV can be 
           completed. However, migrants who do not enter NV and all irregular migrants (estimated to be around 1 million persons) shall be 
           deported after 28th February 2010 (now extended to March 31, 2010).

IV.  The weaknesses in current legislation and problems encountered by migrant workers

      Regarding employment, a common problem experienced by migrants, which is related to human rights rather than health, is violation of their rights as workers.  The following problems occur frequently.

  1. The employer retains the employees’ identity cards

  2. Cards are lost or damaged

  3. Migrants have cards, but are still arrested and have to pay to be released

  4. Migrants do not know if they can change employers

  5. The migrant wishes to change employers, but the original employer refuses to return the card, and the new employer does not want to employ the migrant without it

  6. The employer refuses to pay some or all of the employees’ wages

  7. The employer insists that the employees work more than eight hours per day, with little time off to rest

  8. There is an accident at work, but the employer refuses to help

  9. The employees complain to the employer, but the employer refuses to act

     These problems all undermine the quality of life of migrant workers, and create great insecurity.  Some of the problems can be solved relatively easily.  A booklet could be written with questions like those above, and the answers.  For instance, if the worker has not broken any laws, then officials are not allowed to detain him or her.  If a card is damaged or lost, then the worker should notify the office that issued the card, in order to receive a new one.  If a worker wants to transfer to a new employer, then the worker needs to report to the provincial office of the Department of Employment.

Reference : 

    Kritaya Archavanitkul, and Kulapa Vajanasara. 2008. Employment of migrant workers under the Working of Aliens Act 2008 and the list of      occupations allowed to foreigners. Bangkok: IOM. [in Thai and available online at]
 - Revised: Jul 12, 2023
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