Phuket’s mi­grants face in­den­tity cri­sis

Bangkok Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Paritta Wangkiat

Aplace of never-end­ing con­struc­tion. A hunt­ing ground for job seek­ers. A par­adise for mod­ern gold dig­gers who ar­rive with noth­ing and leave with full pock­ets: Phuket of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties aplenty to those ready to give it a go. New con­struc­tion sites emerge ev­ery month. Roads are end­lessly re­paired to im­prove the traf­fic on an is­land that wel­comes 12 mil­lion tourists a year. New jobs abound in this boom­ing econ­omy.

Sto­ries of in­di­vid­ual achieve­ment have en­ticed many peo­ple to take their chances on Phuket — an ice cream shop be­comes pop­u­lar in a short pe­riod of time, a young en­trepreneur gets rich from tourism, a street food ven­dor ends ups own­ing a restau­rant.

But amid these tales of suc­cess, there are peo­ple who drive the lo­cal econ­omy but strug­gle in in­vis­i­bil­ity.

At a well-known flower shop in down­town Phuket, Ladda*, 20, was even­tu­ally able to get a job to start a new life.

Her task is to twine gar­lands and do flower ar­range­ments for cus­tomers. Valen­tine’s Day will be a busy day for her. The shop owner is happy to have a young and hard-work­ing staff mem­ber on a bud­get.

Ladda was born in Sa­mut Prakan with the as­sis­tance of a mid­wife. Her par­ents, Myan­mar mi­grants from Dawei, did not reg­is­ter her birth, leav­ing her a state­less per­son.

Her fa­ther died at a young age. Her mother’s where­abouts are un­known. She was raised in Kan­chanaburi by a rel­a­tive. Myan­mar is a coun­try she doesn’t know.

She has been try­ing to trace her ori­gin so that she can ap­ply for a Thai ID card. She vis­ited her birth­place but no one can con­firm her birth and her mother’s iden­tity.

Her le­gal limbo means most em­ploy­ers turn down her ap­pli­ca­tion.

“I don’t have a dream. The only thing I want is a se­cure life, a job and a good ed­u­ca­tion,” she says.

Ladda is the off­spring of mi­grants trapped in the mid­dle of nowhere. Peo­ple like her are at­tracted by Phuket’s job mar­ket that is open to ev­ery­one ... even if you’re state­less or an il­le­gal mi­grant.

In 2014, Phuket ranked the top south­ern prov­ince and the 10th in Thai­land in terms of gross provin­cial prod­uct at 138 bil­lion baht, ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice of the Na­tional Eco­nomic and So­cial Devel­op­ment Board.

As of Oc­to­ber 2016, there were 62,899 reg­is­tered mi­grant work­ers, with Myan­mar rep­re­sent­ing 97% and Laos and Cam­bo­dia ac­count­ing for the rest. The num­ber of for­eign work­ers from other na­tions is much smaller at 15,601.

An es­ti­mated 200,000 un­doc­u­mented mi­grant work­ers live in Phuket, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal NGOs, fall­ing into dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories such as state­less, il­le­gal mi­grant and non-Thais who are in a na­tion­al­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion process.

In search of op­por­tu­nity, young mi­grant work­ers may lose the abil­ity to dream in a hard­work­ing life. They are treated as low class de­spite Phuket’s eco­nomic growth de­pend­ing on them.

They are part of the suc­cess sto­ries of the vis­i­ble pop­u­la­tion. But peo­ple hes­i­tate to men­tion their well-be­ing.


“More than 10 here,” Thuza* whis­pers while wait­ing for her or­der at a restau­rant in down­town Phuket.

“That one has not been counted,” says her Thai friend, glanc­ing at a young waiter in a black T-shirt. His left ear­lobe is stretched with a dark thick hoop — an ac­ces­sory pop­u­lar among young men.

Thuza shakes her head. “He is.” Look­ing around — a woman at the cash counter, a fe­male cleaner in the cor­ner, cooks, wait­ers and wait­resses — Thuza re­minds us that young Myan­mar mi­grant work­ers sur­round us, and it’s im­pos­si­ble to draw a line be­tween the lo­cal and mi­grant pop­u­la­tion in daily life.

Many of the mi­grant com­mu­nity ar­rived in Phuket at a young age. Some en­tered Thai­land il­le­gally with bro­kers and gained work per­mits later.

Some were born in Thai­land know­ing that they are from Myan­mar but don’t know any­thing about their par­ents’ place of ori­gin, so feel confused when asked to de­fine them­selves.

Thuza, now a so­cial worker, left Dawei when she was 14. She has taken a num­ber of jobs in Phuket in­clud­ing house­keeper and tuna fac­tory worker.

In her early days in Phuket, she lived in fear of be­ing ar­rested. She shut her­self up at home. When she en­rolled in a Thai-lan­guage class, she dis­cov­ered that most of the mi­grant par­tic­i­pants dis­persed af­ter a week due to fear of be­ing de­tained.

Now 25, she has ob­tained a work per­mit and started to ques­tion her iden­tity. She al­ways sees a strange place when­ever she looks at pic­tures of her hometown on the in­ter­net. “I can’t say how I feel. It’s hard to ex­plain,” she says. “I feel closer to Phuket than my place of ori­gin.”

Mi­grant work­ers’ un­ease stems from the way they are treated as an un­der­class, fac­ing po­lice raids and ex­ploita­tion by em­ploy­ers.

So­cial me­dia are full of com­plaints about state hos­pi­tals be­ing packed by mi­grants and their in­creas­ing pres­ence in pub­lic, which of­ten leads to dis­cus­sions about threats to sovereignty and al­low­ing too many mi­grants into the coun­try. Chief among the ques­tions is who is go­ing pay for their well-be­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Labour In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre, in 2016 there were about 420,000 job va­can­cies in Thai­land, or around 30,000 to 42,000 a month.

Most of the de­mand is for ba­sic jobs — phys­i­cal tasks like clean­ing, pack­ing goods, work­ing in the fish­ery and agri­cul­tural sec­tors and on con­struc­tion sites — which ac­counted for 147,302 po­si­tions, fol­lowed by ser­vice or sales work in shops and mar­kets (77,232) and cler­i­cal or of­fice work (63,142).

Work­ers with sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion were most in de­mand, ac­count­ing for 138,535 po­si­tions, fol­lowed by those with a pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion or be­low (69,957) and vo­ca­tional cer­tifi­cate (62,250). Some 57,307 po­si­tions re­quired a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion from bach­e­lor’s to doc­toral de­grees.

As these statis­tics re­veal, large numbers of va­can­cies do not re­quire a high ed­u­ca­tion level, at odds with the na­tional trend to­wards sec­ondary-school en­rol­ment, which stood at 86.98% in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank.

The lion’s share of avail­able po­si­tions are for jobs mid­dle-class Thais would not be in­ter­ested in.

In the third quar­ter of 2016, 6.36% of em­ploy­ees in Thai­land were mi­grant work­ers from three coun­tries; Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Myan­mar.

The Phuket Fish­ing As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported last year that the lo­cal fish­eries in­dus­try re­quired over 2,000 mi­grant work­ers but only 1,200 were avail­able. The lack of mi­grant work­ers has been a chronic prob­lem for Phuket.

“The thing that em­ploy­ers fear most of all is mi­grant work­ers re­turn­ing home,” says Wirachai Sadsom, pres­i­dent of the Phuket Busi­ness Con­trac­tor Club, which has over 300 mem­bers.

“Such a sce­nario would mean the col­lapse of our busi­ness. The lo­cal econ­omy — even gov­ern­ment devel­op­ment projects like roads and lo­gis­tics in­fra­struc­ture — can’t progress with­out mi­grant work­ers. Mi­grants do jobs that Thais won’t do any more.”


Ev­ery morn­ing, the down­town mar­ket is filled with Myan­mar mi­grants in­stead of Thai-Chi­nese and lo­cals as was the case decades ago.

Lo­cal shop op­er­a­tors hire Myan­mar mi­grants for many tasks in­clud­ing sell­ing goods, car­ry­ing items and sort­ing veg­eta­bles.

Some mi­grants who have enough sav­ings open their own busi­nesses sell­ing mis­cel­la­neous goods to mi­grants. Thanaka, the yel­low cos­metic paste made from ground bark, is dis­played in some shops.

At the back of the mar­ket, some mi­grants rest in a restau­rant, drink­ing and tuck­ing into Burmese food.

Colour­ful clothes hang from the win­dow frames of the up­per floors of dor­mi­tory build­ings for mi­grant work­ers.

A sense of fear is pal­pa­ble when­ever strangers or of­fi­cials en­ter the area.

Some young Myan­mar mi­grants Spec­trum spoke to said they want to re­turn home as soon as they have earned enough.

“I feel safe in Myan­mar be­cause I can go any­where. But here I’m afraid of ev­ery­thing. I pre­fer my home coun­try, but I have to work here for some years,” says Min*, 36, a mi­grant worker at a tuna fac­tory.

He spends most of his free time in a on­e­storey rented house in Koh Sirey, cramped in a small space of no more than 10 square me­tres that he shares with his room­mate Wah*, 22.

Their room con­tains only a mat­tress, blankets and a cou­ple of bas­kets. A pic­ture of Bud­dha and a bunch of fake lo­tus flow­ers rest on an al­tar at­tached to the wall.

The house is shared by an­other cou­ple in their early 20s, like many groups of young mi­grants that live to­gether for a feel­ing of se­cu­rity.

Min and Wah have dyed patches of their hair red. Both of them are le­gal mi­grants who have never seen the ocean de­spite living in Phuket for two years.

“I’ve never thought of any­thing but work­ing,”

The thing em­ploy­ers fear most of all is mi­grant work­ers re­turn­ing home WIRACHAI SADSOM PRES­I­DENT OF THE PHUKET BUSI­NESS CON­TRAC­TOR CLUB

>> says Min, who has worked since the age of 13 to feed his fam­ily.

“I want to look around but I can’t. It’s not a happy life. It’s stress­ful. But the money we earn here can feed a whole fam­ily in Myan­mar. There are op­por­tu­ni­ties here,” Wah adds.

Both of them are con­sid­er­ing re­turn­ing home as they have not been paid in full in re­cent months. They sus­pect this is due to de­clin­ing fish stock.

Just like Ladda, their dreams are ob­scure. When asked about his prospects, Min an­swers: “Maybe hav­ing a small shop sell­ing mis­cel­la­neous items when I go back to Myan­mar.”

Thai­land’s mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment has im­ple­mented ur­gent mea­sures to man­age and pro­tect mi­grant work­ers. The junta was re­spond­ing to the US Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons (TIP) re­port that down­graded Thai­land to Tier 3 sta­tus and the Euro­pean Union is­su­ing a yel­low card over Thai­land’s fail­ure to take suf­fi­cient mea­sures to elim­i­nate il­le­gal, un­re­ported and un­reg­u­lated fish­ing.

Un­der­ground mi­grant work­ers are be­ing brought to light to pro­tect them from hu­man traf­fick­ing. One-stop ser­vice regis­tra­tion cen­tres have been set up across the coun­try, re­quest­ing em­ploy­ers to reg­is­ter their il­le­gal mi­grant work­ers.

The series of mea­sures was claimed to have in­flu­enced the TIP re­port to up­grade Thai­land to Tier 2 last year amid in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism that it was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

On the ground, how­ever, the prob­lem of un­doc­u­mented mi­grants shows few signs of go­ing away. Em­ploy­ers who pre­fer il­le­gal mi­grants — be­cause they are cheap and eas­ily ex­ploited — will never reg­is­ter their work­ers.


Phuket is one of the tough­est places to get mi­grant work­ers’ rights recog­nised, un­like bor­der towns where res­i­dents and au­thor­i­ties are fa­mil­iar with the in­flux of mi­grants. Out­siders to the is­land are di­verse in terms of place of ori­gin and na­tion­al­ity, mean­ing mi­grant work­ers are eclipsed by oth­ers.

Un­doc­u­mented mi­grants can ap­ply for the mi­grant health in­sur­ance scheme, which costs 2,200 baht a year. The scheme was ini­ti­ated by the Pub­lic Health Min­istry to of­fer mi­grants ac­cess to health­care which, in re­turn, pre­vents the spread of com­mu­ni­ca­ble diseases.

It was heav­ily pro­moted in 2013 that any mi­grant could buy the in­sur­ance at the near­est state hos­pi­tal. They would not be asked about their sta­tus or asked to show a work per­mit. In fact, ask­ing for a work per­mit is a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence. Mi­grants have to pass med­i­cal check-ups and get a doc­tor’s con­fir­ma­tion that they’re ca­pa­ble of work­ing be­fore be­ing granted in­sur­ance.

A preg­nant woman may not be el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply if the doc­tor con­sid­ers she’s in­ca­pable of work­ing.

“We don’t re­ject any­one in the health­care sys­tem. Some of them may not ob­tain a work per­mit,” says Pra­porn­sri Nar­in­taruksa, deputy di­rec­tor of Phuket Provin­cial Pub­lic Health Of­fice. “But with­out a work per­mit, the sit­u­a­tion gets com­pli­cated.”

Un­doc­u­mented mi­grants who do not have health in­sur­ance are of­ten un­able to af­ford health­care ser­vices.

There have been re­ports of mi­grant par­ents aban­don­ing their in­fants at state hos­pi­tals be­cause they can’t pay the fees — 6,000 baht for child­birth as­sis­tance, 12,000 baht for a cae­sarean and 1,800 to 3,200 baht for an in­fant in­cu­ba­tor.

With a tough work­ing life and lit­tle money, mi­grant moth­ers of­ten fail to take care of their preg­nan­cies, re­sult­ing in un­der­weight and weak in­fants, mean­ing more money to pay for health­care ser­vices.

Some mi­grants have to re­sort to in­for­mal loans, at over 20% in­ter­est, to cover med­i­cal costs.

In many cases, mi­grant par­ents don’t reg­is­ter the birth of a child ei­ther out of fear or lack of aware­ness.

Hos­pi­tal op­er­a­tors will usu­ally is­sue a cer­tifi­cate re­port­ing a birth, then par­ents must use it to ap­ply for a birth cer­tifi­cate at the dis­trict of­fice.

But Phuket state hos­pi­tals have ex­pe­ri­enced

There is no line be­tween Thai and Myan­mar. The Thai econ­omy is driven by mi­grants


fraud by mi­grants such as us­ing a fe­male mi­grant’s work doc­u­ments to ap­ply for a pre­na­tal clinic for other mi­grants.

Op­er­a­tors now re­quire a copy of an em­ployee’s ID card and cen­sus regis­tra­tion from mi­grant moth­ers to is­sue a birth re­port, which causes dif­fi­cul­ties for mi­grants be­cause em­ploy­ers are not will­ing to pro­vide copies of per­sonal doc­u­ments. Not sur­pris­ingly, many mi­grants do not reg­is­ter a child’s birth.

“Mi­grants are al­ready gripped by fear, so they will run away when prob­lems oc­cur, such as hav­ing no money to pay for child­birth ser­vices,” says Sumana Phakbulawat, field co­or­di­na­tor for the Dioce­san So­cial Ac­tion Cen­tre of Su­rat Thani Catholic Foun­da­tion, who fol­lows up on mi­grant health­care cases.

Around 18 to 20 ba­bies are born to mi­grant work­ers in hos­pi­tals in Phuket town ev­ery week. Around 10 will not be reg­is­tered.

In some cases, Ms Sumana traces the fam­ily of the mi­grant par­ents in Myan­mar and sends the aban­doned in­fant to them. Those whose par­ents can’t be traced are sent to fos­ter homes.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­te­rior Min­istry, as of Dec 31, 2015, there were 8,263 state­less per­sons in Phuket. It’s not clear how many are de­scen­dants of state­less mi­grants.

“The prob­lem of state­less chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers will be a big prob­lem for Phuket if no one tack­les it now,” says Ms Sumana.

Myan­mar mi­grants formed the Mi­grant Work­ers’ Network in Phuket two years ago to help mi­grant work­ers un­der­stand their rights and ed­u­cate them about Thai laws and cus­toms.

“We have to ad­mit the re­al­ity that mi­grant work­ers have been a part of Thai so­ci­ety for many years. There is no line be­tween Thai and Myan­mar,” says Ms Sumana. “The Thai econ­omy is driven by mi­grants too.”

Last year, the Thai Civil Rights and In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism web­site cited a study by Mahi­dol University’s Col­lege of Man­age­ment that showed Myan­mar mi­grants gen­er­ate 20.7 bil­lion baht a year, based on an es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 2.3 mil­lion mi­grants of whom half are il­le­gal. Their to­tal re­mit­tances back home are worth around 60 bil­lion baht a year.


At first glance, San*, 19, looks just like a typ­i­cal lo­cal teenager in a T-shirt and denim, her hair dyed brown-red and speak­ing flu­ent Thai.

But when she tells her story, it re­veals the com­plex sit­u­a­tion of a youth who strug­gles to get peo­ple to ac­cept her ex­is­tence.

“I do not con­sider my­self a mi­grant,” she says. Her fa­ther is from Dawei and her mother is Mon. She was born with a mid­wife’s as­sis­tance in Pilok vil­lage, Kan­chanaburi. Her par­ents didn’t reg­is­ter her birth, re­sult­ing in her state­less sta­tus.

With sup­port from re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions, she man­aged to move to Phuket to study un­til Grade 9. But she can’t pro­ceed to higher ed­u­ca­tion be­cause uni­ver­si­ties do not ac­cept un­doc­u­mented per­sons. She’s now work­ing for a so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion help­ing the less for­tu­nate.

“I’ve spent a lot of money on ver­i­fy­ing my iden­tity,” she says. “As far as I can re­mem­ber, all of my life has been about try­ing to get doc­u­mented sta­tus.”

That in­cludes travelling to Kan­chanaburi on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions to present her case to the dis­trict of­fice. Some­times she pays ex­tra to state of­fi­cials to pro­ceed with her na­tion­al­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

She reg­u­larly checks the In­te­rior Min­istry’s web­site to see if there are new an­nounce­ments about the ver­i­fi­ca­tion process and calls lo­cal of­fi­cials in Pilok to check her case.

The next gen­er­a­tion of mi­grant de­scen­dants — whose par­ents were de­nied labour or health­care rights, or who were aban­doned at hos­pi­tals — will likely strug­gle like San just to find a way to gain ac­cep­tance in Thai­land.

But there will be those who can find a happy end­ing if they have a place to re­turn to, no mat­ter if it’s Thai­land or Myan­mar.

Early this month when Spec­trum met Thuza again, she had good news.

She will re­turn to Dawei next month, the first time she’s been home in a decade, to get a Myan­mar ID card then re­turn to Phuket.

“I want to touch Dawei and see what it’s like,” she says with a grin. “It’s still my place of ori­gin. But Phuket is my home too.”

CALL HOME: A Burmese-lan­guage sign pro­motes mo­bile tele­phone ser­vices in down­town Phuket. Many young Myan­mar mi­grants in­tend to re­turn home as soon as they have earned enough on the south­ern re­sort is­land.

A TASTE OF HOME: A small restau­rant in the Myan­mar com­mu­nity in Phuket. Many mi­grants ar­rived in Phuket at a young age. Some en­tered Thai­land il­le­gally and gained work per­mits later.

TUCK IN: A Myan­mar mi­grant worker makes tra­di­tional snacks at an eatery in Phuket that caters to the mi­grant com­mu­nity. Some mi­grants who have enough sav­ings open their own busi­nesses.

UN­DER­CLASS: An es­ti­mated 200,000 un­doc­u­mented mi­grant work­ers live in Phuket, fall­ing into dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories such as state­less, il­le­gal and non-Thais in a na­tion­al­ity ver­i­fi­ca­tion process.

MAN­POWER SHORT­AGE: A Myan­mar mi­grant worker pre­pares a net. The Phuket Fish­ing As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported last year that lo­cal fish­eries re­quired over 2,000 mi­grant work­ers but only 1,200 were avail­able.

SOME­ONE’S GOT TO DO IT: A Myan­mar mi­grant work­ing on a fish­ing boat. Mi­grants from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries usu­ally take jobs that Thais would not be in­ter­ested in.

WORK­ING UP A LATHER: A Myan­mar worker takes a shower on a fish­ing boat. As of Oc­to­ber 2016, there were 62,899 reg­is­tered mi­grant work­ers in Phuket, with Myan­mar ac­count­ing for 97%.

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