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05BANGKOK628 LOST IN THAILAND’S TSUNAMI: BURMESE MIGRANT WORKERS

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This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 000628

 

SIPDIS

 

SENSITIVE

 

DEPARTMENT FOR DRL/IL, G/TIP, PRM AND EAP

LABOR PASS ILAB

 

E.O. 12958: N/A

TAGS: ELAB KWMN PHUM PREL PREF TH

SUBJECT: LOST IN THAILAND’S TSUNAMI: BURMESE MIGRANT WORKERS

 

REF: BANGKOK 306

 

¶1. (SBU) Summary. The Royal Thai government (RTG) has

earned international plaudits for its responsiveness to

western tourists and Thais affected by the tsunami. Roughly

30,000 Burmese migrants, employed in construction, fisheries,

and hotels in three devastated provinces, remain marginalized

in official assistance efforts, however. Many survivors

appear to have returned to Burma or moved to other provinces

in search of employment. Significant numbers stayed, and are

camping in rubber plantations and forests, with little or no

assistance. Jobless, subject to arrest and deportation, this

population is at risk for trafficking. RTG estimates of

migrant deaths suggest about 250 – 350 perished in the three

provinces. NGOs believe 2,500 died in a single district

alone. Language barriers, and distrust of RTG officials,

means few of the Burmese dead will be identified. End

Summary.

 

 

¶2. What Happened to the Burmese Migrants?

————————————-

 

(U) Over 62,700 Burmese migrants are registered in Phuket,

Phang Nga and Krabi provinces, the three areas most affected

by Thailand’s December 26 tsunami. (UN and NGO observers

believe another 20 – 30 percent of resident migrants are

illegally present, suggesting a total population well over

80,000.) Of this large group, 23,800 registered workers (and

another 7,000 or so illegal) were in high-risk economic

sectors that bore the brunt of the disaster’s impact:

commercial fishing, construction and hotel staff. NGOs and

Royal Thai government (RTG) agencies reported many of those

employed in affected economic sectors, in shock and without

employers, wished to return to Burma. The U.S. NGO World

Vision, assisting destitute migrants return to Burma via a

transit center in Ranong (Ref), reported that about 700

registered workers returned voluntarily through the facility

until it closed on January 16th. Another 800 returned to

Kawthoung (Burma) without assistance. Others appear to have

fled to rubber plantations and wooded areas inland in Phang

Nga and Krabi. A local NGO reported that 3,000 surviving

Burmese, formerly resident in a Phang Nga fishing village

devastated by the disaster, are now sheltering in a forested

area nearby. About 320 Burmese families, including pregnant

women and children, reportedly fled to the hills above the

resort area of Khao Lak. On January 22-23, a U.S. NGO

provided the group with food and baby formula, which is using

plastic sheeting for shelter. Similar reports of migrants

living in difficult conditions have been received from Krabi

province. Although no estimates are available, a large

proportion of migrants are believed to have moved to other

inland provinces to look for new employment – a move that

legally has to be reported to the RTG Ministry of Labor

(MOL). To date, only 450 registered workers have requested

MOL permission to move, however.

 

¶3. The Thai Government Responds

—————————-

 

(SBU) On January 10 – 11, Laboff met with senior officials in

the MOL and Ministry of Social Development and Human Security

(MSDHS), the two main government agencies providing services

to tsunami survivors, to encourage increased outreach efforts

to affected Burmese migrants. MOL Deputy Permanent Secretary

Thapabutr Jamasevi asserted that registered foreign workers

“have exactly the same rights” as Thai citizens in requesting

job placement, severance pay and other benefits under the

Labor Protection Act. Similarly, MSDHS Permanent Secretary

Wallop Phloytabthim claimed that migrants received “identical

treatment” with Thais. However, Wallop acknowledged that

few Burmese migrants had approached local MSDHS officials for

assistance, speculating that they were “afraid” to request

shelter in an internally displaced person camp established by

the RTG in Phang Nga province. (That camp now holds

approximately 4,000 Thais.) MOL assistance is similarly

limited to date: an official report dated 18 January claimed

medical treatment at area hospitals was provided for 500

registered workers. Otherwise, services have been confined

to the voluntary repatriation of registered workers to Burma,

processing the relatively few requests to change to employers

in other provinces, and providing USD 125 for “body

preparation” services for four deceased migrants.

 

¶4. Widely Differing Estimates of Migrant Deaths

———————————————

 

(U) Several Thai NGOs that work with Burmese migrants

completed preliminary surveys of tsunami affected areas the

week of January 10 – 17. The Migrant Assistance Project and

Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association estimated 2,500 migrants

died in the hardest hit area, Khao Lak District in Phang Nga

province, where there were 9,800 (mostly fishermen)

registered. The NGOs developed the estimate by interviewing

villagers to determine how many fishing boats were lost; each

vessel was then assumed to contain thirty Burmese fishermen.

(Many boats had just returned from night fishing when the

disaster struck, and were beached with crew asleep on board.)

Other NGO reports offer limited snapshots of casualties: 200

migrant construction/hotel workers dead at Patong beach,

Phuket; 270 fishermen perished in Baan Nam Khem fishing

village, Phanga Nga province; “hundreds” more at another

nearby fishing village. Official RTG estimates are much

lower. Based on surveys of employers retaining registered

workers, the MOL believes only 255 were killed by the tsunami

(all in Phang Nga province), with another 200 missing in

Phuket. Of the missing, some are believed by MOL officials

to have returned informally to Burma.

 

¶5. IOM: Government Assistance Sub-Par

———————————-

 

(SBU) An initial assessment by the International

Organization for Migration (IOM) notes that RTG services to

migrants fall far short of those provided to Thai nationals

and western tourists in tsunami – affected areas. The January

10 report criticizes MOL efforts for focusing on registered

migrants, ignoring the thousands who are unregistered. For

those unregistered, quick deportations are the norm, which

IOM characterized as a “politically convenient” way to deal

with the alleged looting of damaged properties by Burmese.

(The RTG immigration chief publicly accused the Burmese

workers as “preying” on local Thais in wake of the disaster.

Isolated cases of looting, in reality mostly perpetrated by

Thais, were quickly blamed on migrants and the charge was

widely believed.) Public health services are poor: by

January 11, only 29 registered migrants had received

treatment in Phanga Nga provincial hospital, which has seen

over 620 tsunami patients since December 26. An attempt by

NGO health workers to assess migrant health needs at one

fishing village was met by violence on January 12, when Thai

villagers imprisoned three Burmese staff of World Vision, and

beat one Thai. (The villagers mistakenly believed the health

team intended to repatriate the migrants, for whom fishing

boat owners had paid registration fees.) Health and

sanitation outreach to the large numbers living in forests

and rubber plantations, and to those workers not registered,

is currently limited or non-existent.

 

¶6. Comments.

——–

 

(U) Migrant workers are by nature a highly mobile and

somewhat hidden population. In the chaotic wake of Thailand’s

worst natural disaster, a large portion of the 30,000 in

provinces and occupations most likely to have been affected

are simply unaccounted for. Many likely moved quietly to

other provinces in search for new employment, beyond the gaze

of RTG officials and the handful of interested NGOs. Others

may have returned to Burma at the many informal crossings

along the porous border. A true accounting of the Burmese

killed by the tsunami will never be made. For those whose

bodies were found, few will be identified. In the six days

immediately following the tsunami, Laboff did not encounter

any Burmese searching for relatives among the hundreds of

bodies strewn about make-shift morgues in Khao Lak district,

Phang Nga province, nor were there Burmese language notices

on the many missing persons boards. On December 29, the

hasty cremation of dozens of Asian remains was observed at a

Buddhist temple. Workers said that most remains had not been

claimed by a group of Thai villagers waiting nearby, offering

that “they are probably just Burmese.” Concerned NGOs

believe that language barriers, and a well-ingrained fear of

Thai officialdom, accounts for the reluctance of migrants to

identify compatriots who perished in the tsunami.

 

¶7. (SBU) Post advocacy efforts in the weeks ahead will focus

on the living, particularly Burmese women and children who

might be at risk of trafficking in persons. About 10,200

registered (and an estimated 3,000 unregistered) women were

employed in tsunami-devastated economic sectors in the three

most affected provinces, and many of these have certainly

lost employers, putting them in danger.

BOYCE

Written by thaicables

August 26, 2011 at 4:32 am

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