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Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN)

Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific

ISSUES PAPER FROM THAILAND

    A. Introduction

Transnational migration is an old and well-known phenomenon in Thailand. For many centuries, the country has witnessed foreigners coming to stay on Thai soil and native people leaving for other lands. Mostly, immigration to Thailand was more evident than emigration. Among the immigrant groups, the Chinese traders and labourers who arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries were the largest group. From the Bangkok Census in 1909, it was reported that 162,505 Chinese migrants settled in the capital. Other nationals such as Indians, Westerners, Japanese and people from neighbouring countries also came to Thailand for various reasons. The Indian merchants came here to trade and to spread Buddhist teachings. The Westerners came to trade and to teach Christianity. Thailand’s neighbours, i.e., the Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon, Burmese, Karen, Shan and other small ethnic groups immigrated to Thailand because of trade, fighting, escaping from either natural disasters or those caused by humans, and the sharing of some religious traditions and culture. At that time, there was no border line to demarcate the territory of each state, so movements around the border areas were natural and free.

The emigration of Thai people to other lands has been a more recent phenomenon. Historically, Thais were not great travellers. People were not adventurous and there were no pressures driving people to move out. Natural resources were rich and the country was not densely populated. As a result, the country needed more labourers for production. Thus, foreign workers were welcomed to immigrate.

It was not until the early 20th century that Thailand started to be aware of the influx of immigrants. In 1907, King Rama V issued an Act on the Qualities of Immigrants limiting the annual number of immigrants (mainly Chinese) allowed to enter Thailand. Later, the limited number decreased dramatically from 10,000 to 200 immigrants per year. Along with this restriction, the Thai court also aroused the patriotic feelings of the Thais against the Chinese, naming the latter as ‘The Jews of the East’. Throughout the 20th century, immigration to Thailand has been restricted. The Immigration Acts of 1927 and 1979 only permitted professional transients to enter without quotas and restricted other types of immigrants due to economic and national security. The second half of the 20th century witnessed immigration from neighbouring countries, especially from Indochina and Burma.

As for emigration, significant movements of Thai nationals out of the country started during the 1970s. Most of the migrants were professionals who sought employment in the United States. Later, in the 1980s, a massive outflow of Thai migrants went to the Gulf region for employment during the oil boom. In the 1990s, the trend of movement changed to the newly industrialised countries in Asia.

    B. Current Situation of Transnational Migration in Thailand

In 1994, the transnational population in Thailand consisted of tourists, migrant workers, trafficked persons, and asylum seekers and refugees. The details of each category (also see Table 1) are:

(1) Tourists
i) Foreign tourists to Thailand. It is estimated that 6,300,000 tourists entered Thailand in 1994. The Tourism Authority of Thailand reported 5,760,533 tourists in 1993.

ii) Thai tourists to foreign countries. There are no official statistics of Thai tourists annually. Of the 2 million Thais going abroad annually, an estimated half are tourists.

(2) Documented Migrant Workers
i) Thai migrant workers. In 1993, the Department of Employment Recruitment recorded 137,950 workers who were contracted to work overseas.

ii) Guest workers in Thailand. In 1993, 22,101 guest workers were permitted to work in Thailand.

(3) Undocumented Migrant Workers
i) Thai migrant workers. There are no valid estimates from receiving countries. The Japanese Immigration Bureau reported 55,219 illegal immigrants from Thailand staying in Japan in 1993. Archavanitkul (1995) estimated that no less than 200,000 Thai illegal migrants are working abroad.

ii) Foreign migrant workers. The Thai Immigration Office estimated that 525,480 illegal migrant workers were in Thailand in 1994.

(4) Trafficked Persons
i) Thai traffic abroad. No official estimate. Some NGO sources estimate that 10,000 are being trafficked from Thailand annually.

ii) Foreign traffic in Thailand. No official estimates. Accumulated statistics of women and children being trafficked from China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia amounted to around 30,000 in 1993.

(5) Asylum Seekers and Refugees
In 1994, 19,902 Indochinese refugees were staying in Thailand and 80,418 Burmese were displaced on Thai soil. In all, it was estimated that 7.9 million persons migrated transnationally to and from Thailand in 1994. This number is 13.5 per cent of the total population, which was 58.6 million in the same year. The significant number of mobile people warrants concern by researchers and policy makers in Thailand.

    C. Profiles and Problems of Emigration from Thailand

The development of Thai emigration can be divided into 3 periods (see Table 2). During Period One (1975–1981), migrants had many choices because there was a big need for labour in many countries. The salaries were high and employment recruitment was professional and fair. These were the ‘golden days’ of emigration. During Period Two (1982–1987), the majority of Thai migrants went to the Gulf Region. However, when overseas employment was at its peak, exploitation of emigrants started. Employment syndicates and ‘middlemen’ cheated poor people who looked for jobs abroad by charging them a high fee for job recruitment and sometimes failed to provide the promised employment. Some did travel but found bad jobs with low pay. Most of the workers, legal or illegal, were not fully protected by the labour law.

Period Three started after 1987. The new trend of labour migration has been in Asian newly industrialised countries. The major receiving countries were Taiwan, Brunei, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan (see Table 2). This new trend is called Asianisation. The number of Thai workers going to Southeast Asian and East Asian countries became higher than those going to the gulf region. In 1993, figures for migrants checked by the Ministry of Labour show that 118,600 Thais went to Asia while the rest (14,623 persons) went to other destinations. However, the estimated numbers of Thai labourers abroad (as reported by the Ministry of Labour) are much higher. In total, the Thai government estimated that 370,500 Thais worked abroad during 1993. Among these, 33,000 went to the Middle East and 221,000 went to Asian countries (see Table 3).

Feminisation is another important trend of emigration. It was found that in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Germany and England, the number of female migrants exceeded the number of male migrants during 1990–1993, not including undocumented migrants (see Table 4). The number of female migrants is related to the demand for female domestic helpers and female workers in the entertainment and commercial sex industries, a trend which has very negative consequences for the female entertainment workers. The demand is increasing, resulting in the trafficking and inducement of young girls from ethnic minorities into prostitution.

The outflow of Thai and other Southeast Asian migrant workers has resulted in stricter immigration policies in most receiving countries. Governments implemented restrictive immigration measures wherein immigration was limited or closed, overstayers were arrested, and illegal migrants were punished, fined, imprisoned and deported. Yet, the wave of Thai undocumented migrants to countries which are centres of economic internationalisation offering high salaries continues. Based on figures showing the numbers of undocumented Thai migrants arrested in major receiving countries, there are probably more than 100,000 illegal Thai workers abroad (see Table 5). Undocumented migration becomes another feature of Thai emigration.

Migrant workers usually send remittances to Thailand. The countries of origin for such remittances are the Middle East, Southeast Asia (Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia), Japan, Europe (France, Italy and Germany) and the United States (see Table 6). Remittances from the Middle East were the highest in 1985; but in 1990, the highest remittances were from the US. Remittances from Japan are also high. After 1990, remittances dropped dramatically. In total, Thailand received 24,906.8 million baht or almost US$1,000 million in remittances during 1990. In 1994, remittances were 33,130 million baht (US$1,325 million).

During the initial period when Thai migrant labour outflows were increasing, the government, expecting increased remittances, did not do much to prevent Thai labourers from being exploited by employment syndicates. It promoted a policy of free labour export. A worker usually paid US$3,000 - $US10,000 to a syndicate and there was no guarantee that they would be employed. Unemployed workers also needed assistance and support from Thai embassies to return to Thailand. At present, Thailand has labour attaches working at the Thai Embassies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, Japan, etc. There is debate about whether the Ministry of Labour should run all the employment recruitment syndicates or just supervise their operation loosely as they are doing now (Siam Post, January 1996).

    D. Immigration to Thailand

Apart from tourists, the number of foreigners coming to Thailand for long stays has always been low, not exceeding 5,000 persons per year during 1979–1984. Most of these immigrants were professional transients who came to work according to the Investment Promotion Act of 1977. Most of them were from Japan, China and the US. However, since 1985, the number of contract workers in Thailand increased from 6,229 persons in 1985 to 9,577 persons in 1990 and 22,101 in 1993 (see Table 6). The increase is due to the growing number of illegal immigrants who come to work in Thailand. Some of these immigrants (17,445 during 1993) were arrested, guaranteed by some employers who deposited money with the Thai authorities, then released for temporary work before being deported.

Illegal immigrants are the biggest group of migrants to Thailand. The recent economic prosperity in the country has brought about income disparities between Thai nationals and nationals of neighbouring countries whose economic development has advanced at a slower speed. This has resulted in an influx of migrant workers, especially from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, China and Bangladesh. While a significant amount of Thai labourers left for overseas employment, those who stayed preferred not to do the dangerous, difficult and dirty jobs. Thus, foreign workers accepted the jobs that Thai nationals did not want, especially in fisheries, construction work and farming. Some female migrants were employed in industrial and service sectors. They worked in factories, as domestic workers and in the entertainment business.

The Thai Immigration Office estimated that there were approximately 525,480 illegal immigrants in Thailand in 1994 (see Table 7). Of this number, the biggest group came from Burma (334,124), followed by China (100,000) and South Asian Countries (81,357). The smallest group was from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Actually, it is very difficult to distinguish a Lao from a Northeast Thai because their language, appearance and cultural practices are similar. The real number of Lao immigrants may be higher but they are not detected.

The demand for workers in the local and overseas sex industries has affected the trafficking of migrant girls and women from Burma, Yunnan, Laos and Vietnam. The Foundation of Women reported that children and women were smuggled from the border areas to Thailand or on transit visas in Thailand to other destinations like Europe, Japan and the US, then forced into prostitution. Among the low-price transborder prostitutes at the border areas, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases especially HIV/AIDS is alarming. Information campaigns on HIV/AIDS aimed at these groups have been ineffective since they do not read nor speak Thai.

Trafficked persons arrested in police raids in brothels are charged as illegal immigrants. The Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights (a Thai NGO), with support from the International Organization for Migration, has a program to repatriate girls and women from Yunnan.

In 1995, the Chambers of Commerce in some border provinces in Thailand submitted a petition to the government to give amnesty to Burmese illegal workers in their provinces. They referred to the shortages in the Thai labour force and the acute need to employ migrant workers in their businesses. The Ministry of Labour implemented a trial amnesty in Ranong province during 1995. The proposed process of amnesty was that employers had to deposit 5,000 baht (US$200) with the provincial labour officer in order to employ a migrant worker. Employers had to guarantee the stay of the worker; otherwise, the deposit would be forfeited. The implementation was not initially successful because migrant workers were afraid of being arrested and did not come for registration. Employers complained that the deposit was too high and that they ran a high risk of losing their deposits due to the high mobility of migrant workers. As a result, both employers and migrant workers worked together directly and illegally instead of going through the newly introduced amnesty system. With such illegal and direct employment, employers did not need to pay the deposit and workers did not need to risk registration and possible arrest. The workers continued to work in hiding and the problem was not resolved. Recently, the Thai National Security Council revised its security policy and agreed to permit migrant workers to work in Thailand (Siam Post, February 1995)

Another group of immigrants to Thailand are asylum seekers. During the 1980s, most asylum seekers were from Indochina. In all, more than one million Indochinese refugees migrated into Thailand (Chantavanich 1993). By 1994, most of them were either resettled in receiving countries or repatriated. The number remaining was only 19,902 in 1995 (see Table 8). In 1996, a handful of Vietnamese and ethnic Hmong from Laos still stay in Thailand. On the other hand, asylum seekers fleeing fighting and political conflicts in Burma have increased dramatically during the 1990s. There are many camps along the border housing an estimated 74,449 Burmese asylum seekers of various ethnic groups (see Table 8). Some Burmese students who were suppressed during the democracy uprisings in Burma during 1988 have formed resistance groups at the border. These groups have approximately 2,000 members. Some Burmese students came to Bangkok and became ‘persons of concern to the UNHCR’. In 1996, all of them were transferred to the Safe Area for Burmese asylum seekers in Ratburi province. In early 1996, there were approximately 600 people in the Safe Area.

    E. Issues and Areas of Potential Research

From the history and current situation of transnational migration in Thailand we can identify the following issues which can lead to areas of priority research.

(1) Government policy on transnational migration
Recent migration phenomena need a clear policy response from the government. Such a policy must account for political, legal, economic and humanitarian considerations to benefit the country in the long run. At present, the government does not have an explicit policy on international migration.

(2) Undocumented migration
Both emigrants and immigrants travelling illegally have had many impacts on Thailand, as well as other sending and receiving countries. There is a need for more accurate estimates of the numbers of illegal migrants and profiles of their origins, activities, and lengths of stay. There is an urgent need for appropriate measures to handle the influx of illegal foreign migrants in Thailand and illegal Thai labourers abroad. Measures such as amnesty, restricted immigration and emigration regulations with quotas, and bilateral and multilateral negotiations with sending and receiving countries need greater analysis and debate. There is also a need for comparative research to learn about the principles, processes and details of migration in other countries.

(3) The impact of transborder migration
The movement of people from one state to another always produces various impacts on both sending and receiving countries. There are economic, socio-cultural, environmental and health impacts, as well as legal consequences resulting from population mobility. As a sending country, Thailand is affected by the amount of remittances being sent back, job opportunities for unemployed people, migrants’ separation from their families, legal protection for Thai nationals, etc. These are some of the many impacts that need further study. As a receiving country, Thailand faces problems such as the dependence on foreign labour for certain types of jobs, the risk of economic stagnation (i.e., shifting from labour-intensive to hi-tech production), the emergence of ethnic minority communities on Thai soil, the spread of infectious diseases, and legal problems concerning the status and rights of migrant workers.

(4) The protection of migrants’ rights
Most migrants who move into Thailand and Thai emigrants abroad are relatively socio-economically disadvantaged compared to the populations in the areas to which they migrate. Thus, they need protection. Thailand asks that receiving countries provide Thai migrants with proper rights in terms of wages, social welfare and other basic human rights. However, it is not ready to offer the same rights to migrants living on Thai soil. What is the meeting point between such a demand on one side and the inability and lack of will to offer it on the other side? Is the ‘Asian Way’ different from the norms accepted in other parts of the world for determining the criteria for treatment of migrant workers? Which UN Conventions on migrant workers should be ratified? Why?

(5) The inadequacy of information on transnational migration
Unlike internal migration, information on Thailand’s transborder migration is limited, incomplete, fragmented or unavailable. The Immigration Office provides aggregate numbers of persons who leave and enter the country. However, such numbers do not cover undocumented migration and the published breakdowns of migrants by gender, age, occupation, and site of border crossing are inadequate. In addition, related information—such as the remittances and expenses of Thais who travel abroad—are not available from a single source or are unavailable. Without this sort of baseline data, it is difficult to undertake detailed research and policy analyses on migration. In comparison with other countries within the region, Thailand has a relatively high estimated number of immigrants. Yet Thailand has few research studies on cross-border migration. Information about regional labour markets and regional population movements which can directly affect Thailand is also scarce. As a result, the state lacks a foundation on which to base a broad migration policy. Thailand and/or the Asia-Pacific region should have a regional information centre on transnational migration.


    APPENDIX


Table 1: Estimate of Overall Immigration and Emigration in Thailand 1993/1994


Category

Immigration

Emigration

Tourists

5,760,533

*1,000,000

Documented migrant workers

22,101

137,950

Undocumented migrant workers

*525,480

*200,000

Trafficked persons

*10,000

*30,000

Asylum seekers

100,320

-


Source
: Archavanitkul 1995
Note: * estimated figures


Table 2: Number of Thai Contract Labourers by Countries of Employment 1975–1993


Countries

1975

1980

1985

1988

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

Malaysia

   

1,861

1,238

607

2,087

2,473

2,151

11,358

Indonesia

   

86

150

286

204

146

115

 

Singapore

 

723

3,387

5,262

10,692

6,464

9,488

11,337

14,171

Brunei

   

2,160

6,792

8,861

8,009

8,840

12,729

14,750

Hong Kong

   

6

3,988

6,662

7,908

8,431

7,255

5,102

Japan

   

359

3,942

3,826

4,210

6,263

6,748

5,588

Taiwan

     

109

168

111

2,237

10,938

66,891

China

     

28

78

76

134

0

 

India

     

38

100

42

31

0

 

Sri Lanka

   

8

46

23

46

6

0

 

Other Asia

   

78

154

233

335

428

437

660

Total Asia

0

723

7,945

21,747

31,536

29,492

38,477

46,883

118,600

Middle East

984

20,761

61,659

92,175

87,748

27,478

21,354

22,839

17,019

Africa

0

0

67

123

180

100

128

0

0

USA & Saipan

   

3

3,240

3,864

3,731

2,167

978

706

Europe

0

0

2

893

1,056

1,119

1,007

935

898


Source:
Year Book of Labour Statistics, Department of Labour; cited in Pracha 1994


Table 3: Estimates of the Number of Thai Labourers Abroad


Country

1988

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

Saudi Arabia

150,000

140,000

120,000

39,600

25,000

15,000

10,000

Iraq

6,000

5,000

3,000

-

-

-

-

Qatar

4,000

3,800

3,000

3,000

3,00

3,000

3,200

Bahrain

2,500

3,000

2,000

3,500

3,000

3,500

3,500

United Arab Emirates

3,000

2,000

2,000

2,000

2,500

2,500

2,500

Kuwait

8,000

6,500

-

2,800

5,500

3,000

3,000

Israel

-

-

2,000

2,300

3,000

3,500

7,000

Other Middle East

3,000

2,300

1,300

2,000

2,000

2,500

3,500

Libya

25,000

25,000

25,000

25,000

25,000

20,000

17,000

Other Africa

500

500

500

-

-

1,500

1,500

Malaysia

10,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

25,000

30,000

38,000

Singapore

25,000

30,000

30,000

27,000

50,000

50,000

50,000

Brunei

9,000

11,000

11,000

11,000

20,000

21,000

25,000

Hong Kong

6,000

9,500

9,500

15,500

20,000

25,000

26,000

Japan

6,000

4,000

4,000

25,000

76,000

100,000

80,000

Taiwan

-

-

-

7,000

20,000

80,000

150,000

Other Asia

10,000

12,000

12,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

10,500

Totals

268,000

264,000

235,300

178,700

290,000

370,500

430,700


Estimated from:
-- Annual statistics of Thai emigrants as contract labourers
-- Statistical Report of Thai Labourers Overseas, Office of Overseas Labour; Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Table 4: Receiving Countries Where Female Workers Outnumber Male Workers


Country

Male

Female

Gender Ratio

Hong Kong

815

19,498

4.2

S. Korea

68

160

42.5

Japan

9,542

9,779

97.6

Germany

412

704

58.5

England

319

326

97.8


Source
: Department of Employment Recruitment, Ministry of Labour and Social welfare; cited in Archavanitkul 1995


Table 5: Estimated Number of Undocumented Thai Migrant Workers in Receiving Countries


Country

Estimated number

Taiwan

6,3091

Japan

55,2192
(24,463 male + 28,756 female)

Hong Kong

16,3983

Singapore

35,8294


Source
:
1. Taiwan Port Control Authority, Overstayers in Taiwan, cited in Tsay 1992
2. Japanese Immigration Bureau Statistics of Overstayers in Japan 1993
3. Hong Kong Immigration Department estimates 1993, minus the number of contract labourers in the same year
4. Thai Office of Overseas Labour estimates 1993, minus the number of contract labourers in the same year


Table 6: Remittances from Thai Labourers 1985; 1990–1994 (in millions of baht)


Sending from

1985

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

Brunei

5.6

104.3

       

Indonesia

26.2

22.4

       

Malaysia

145.5

52.4

       

Singapore

609.0

553.1

       

Middle East

12,931.6

5,680.5

       

Japan

656.1

1,807.3

       

France

63.2

179.0

       

Italy

48.5

58.2

       

Germany

454.7

802.6

       

U.S.

7,471.9

12,466.0

       

Others

1,332.3

3,181.0

       

Total

23,795.8

24,906.8

26,017

28,620

30,995

33,130


Source
: The Bank of Thailand 1995


Table 7: Number of Contract Migrant Workers in Thailand 1980-1993


Period

Number

1980

3,688

1985

6,229

1990

9,577

1991

11,479

1992

11,651

1993

22,101


Source
: Department of Employment Recruitment, Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare Thailand; cited in Archavanitkul 1995


Table 8: Estimated Number of Undocumented Migrant Workers in Thailand in 1994


Origin

Number

Burma

334,123

China

100,000

Indochina

10,000

South Asia

81,357

Total

525,480


Source
: Immigration Office Thailand 1994


Table 9: Number of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Thailand 1994


Country/Ethnicity/Group

Number

Indochina

19,887

    Lao

1,699

    Hmong

11,836

    Vietnamese

6,352

    Cambodia

---

Burma

80,418

    Mon

 

    Karen at border camps

74,449

    Shan

---

All Burmese Students Democratic Front (ABSDF)

*2,000

Students in Safe Area

167

Persons of Concern to UNHCR

2,302

Shan displaced persons in Chiangmai

*1,500

Total

100,320


Source
: Adapted from Chantavanich 1995
Note: *Estimated figures


    References

    Archavanitkul, K. 1995, An Overview of Transnational Migration in Thailand: Policy and Areas of Research. Institute of Population and Social Research, Mahidol University. (in Thai).

    Asian Research Center for Migration 1995, Proceedings of Conference on Transnational Migration in the Asia-Pacific Region: Problems and Prospects, December 1–2, 1994. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

    Chantavanich, S. 1993, Mass Movements of People from Indochina: Challenges for the 1990s, Jahrbuch fur vergleichende Sozialforschung. Edition Parabolis, Berlin, pp. 75–104.

    Chantavanich, S. 1994, ‘Refugees from Myanmar and Indochina’, Asia Yearbook 1994, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

    Chantavanich, S. 1995, Crossborder Migration in Asia-Pacific and Labour Linkages, Working paper, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

    Chantavanich, S. & Risser, G. 1995. ‘National Policy and Crossborder Migration in the Asia-Pacific: Security and Social Implications’, Paper presented at the Ninth Asia Pacific Roundtable, Kuala Lumpur, 5–9 June.

    Tsay, Ching-lung 1992, ‘Clandestine Labour Migration to Taiwan’, Asia and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 1, Nos. 3–4. pp. 637–55.

    Wickramasekara, P. 1995, ‘Recent Trends in Temporary Labour Migration in Asia’, Paper presented at the International Seminar on Migration and the Labour Market in Asia in the Year 2000, Tokyo, 19–20 January 1995.



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