Despite Myanmar’s much-heralded democratic reforms, people smuggling across its border with Thailand is on the rise, Thai immigration police in say.
Thailand and Myanmar have both stepped up efforts to control illegal border crossing.
While fewer migrants appear to be attempting to leave Myanmar by sea, the Thai authorities say people smuggling across the border has increased since 2014, after the military took power promising to break trafficking rings.
“We’ve applied a lot of pressure so they have to find a new way to come. We can’t keep tabs on it all,” said Sompong Saimonka, deputy superintendent of the Thai border police in Tak province, which includes the busiest border crossing at Mae Sot.
The World Bank forecasts Myanmar’s annual economic growth will average 7.1 per cent over the next three years but wages remain among Asean’s lowest.
Burmese migrants in Thailand are regularly found working in unpopular jobs in construction, agriculture and fishing, providing a key resource in Asean’s second-largest economy.
Many migrants are unwilling to wait up to six months for Thai identity documents and use the smugglers instead.
Mae Sot immigration police say the smuggling cases they encountered from Myanmar rose from around 20,300 in 2014 to nearly 25,000 last year. Border is demarcated in parts by the Moie River, which during the current dry season can be crossed by foot.
Few of those recently smuggled were Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Rakhine State, the Thai police said.
Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said: “At present Thailand is very conscious about human rights when it comes to labourers and we have opened for labourers from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar to come and work in Thailand. Thailand needs overseas labour. We just ask that it is correct.”
Migrants typically pay up to 15,000 Thai baht (US$430) to reach the major Thai cities.
Efforts to repatriate more than 98,000 Burmese refugees in nine makeshift camps along the Thai border with UN support are slowly progressing, as international aid is cut to the settlements. The camps have been in place since the mid-1980s as civilians fled conflicts between the many armed ethnic armies and Myanmar’s military.
Efforts to repatriate the refugees have been increased since the National League for Democracy came to office last April.
Saw Paul Sein Twa of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network said pressure on refugees to leave the camps was being driven by funding cuts by international donors.
“The donors are jumping very fast. And what we want to see is an organised return where we work together, plan step by step. But what’s happening now is more like promoting the refugees return, like setting out some programme with the Thai authorities and then the people who want to go back to go and register,” Sein Twa said.
A Thai refugee camp along the border with Myanmar in Mae Hong Song province. Picture credit: Flickr