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Construction worker Too Nu on Phuket with his worker ID

Crackdown on Burmese as Arrest Numbers Grow

Friday, April 11, 2008
ALMOST as many illegal Burmese have been arrested on Phuket and trucked back to the border so far this year as in the whole of last year.

Figures from Phuket Immigration list 2923 arrested Burmese so far this year, including 107 who were trucked off the island on April 9. The breakdown is January 798, February 1093, March 824 and 208 so far in April.

The total compares with 3622 for the whole of 2007, when the highest individual month was March with 560 arrests.

The Superintendent of Phuket Immigration, Police Colonel Chanatpol Yongbunjerd, told Phuketwan that the illegal problem had become greater this year.

''I am asking police in Patong, Chalong and Phuket City for help,'' he said. A comprehensive crackdown on illegal Burmese is planned after Songkran, from April 21 to 25.

The number of Burmese being arrested this year is placing pressure on the Immigration jail facilities, which are not built to hold large numbers of people for more than a few hours.

The deaths of more than 50 Burmese in a container on the back of a truck near Ranong on April 9 indicate more people may try to come by land rather than risk travelling by boat in monsoon weather.

It's a simple ID card, about the same size and shape as most driving licences. A permit to work in Thailand.

Hardly worth your life.

Yet increasing numbers of Burmese seem prepared to risk death to cross the border, where they can expect to find work doing menial labor.

Construction sites, fishing trawlers, plantations, home-help: the Burmese do all the lowly-paid jobs that Thais are sometimes reluctant to do, at least in sufficient numbers.

It's said the resorts along the Andaman Sea that were flattened by the 2004 tsunami have mostly been rebuilt on the backs of Burmese.

Burmese are now coming in such numbers that cross-border migration has become an issue of national security, with the Thai Navy exploring a top-level suggestion that an island detention centre would become a suitable deterrent.

The wealthy tourists who flock to Phuket in growing numbers drive past shanty towns composed of corrugated iron shacks where Burmese laborers live in primitive conditions under an 8pm curfew.

They are forbidden to own mobile telephones or motorcycles, blamed for almost every crime on the island, and suspected of spreading tuberculosis and HIV.

Phuket's foremost heroines, immortalised in one large statue on the main road from the airport, are a pair of sisters who helped to beat off a Burmese invasion of the island in 1785.

Ever since, it seems, the Burmese have been trying to creep back.

The Chief of Phuket's Employment Office, Nataya Anudit, told Phuketwan that 35,116 Burmese have the precious ID cards and at least 20,000 more work illegally on the island.

''Construction companies are always looking for more workers,'' she said. ''If they cannot get them legally, they usually find them illegally.''

The problem is mirrored in other provinces along the coast but Phuket, with its heady mix of wealthy tourists and a booming economy, is where the Burmese want to be most.

More are dying for the opportunity. It is the sudden increase in the arrivals of the Rohingya, a Burmese minority Muslim group, that has now caused a headache for the Thai military.

A boatload of about 80 recently arrived on Koh Kor Kao, an island not far north of Phuket.

They were reported to local authorities by anxious villagers, and told immigration officials that there had been deaths onboard on their 11-day voyage south.

Like all Burmese caught illegally along the Andaman coast, the Rohingya were trucked straight back to the border, where they will be refused entry because Burma does not usually allow illegals to return.

There are fears that unless an example is made, Burmese Muslims could link up with the southern Muslims who are being blamed for the deadly separatist unrest in Thailand's deep south provinces.

Those Burmese who do find legal jobs, like Too Nu, who works on a site in Phuket City, benefit from the minimum wage of 193 baht, which is about four times what laborers are paid in Burma, if they can find work.

Too Nu, 24, came legally nine years ago.

Another Burmese, a woman who came to Phuket illegally, told of having to pay police bribes to get into the country.

She now has a legal job as a housemaid, assisted in making her position legal by a helpful employer. Burmese who do win the right to work often prosper on Phuket.

But many others are arrested and trucked back to the border.

Laurence Gray, regional advocacy director, World Vision Asia Pacific, confirms that extortion is likely among vulnerable groups such as the Burmese in Thailand.

''Illegal migrants will often be made to work long hours or not paid wages at all,'' he said.

A World Vision survey of almost 1200 Burmese involved in so-called ''blind migration,'' the phrase for when people crossed a border without a job to go to, indicated about one in 10 were led into prostitution.

For Complete Background:

54 Burmese Found Dead in Phuket Bound Container

Deathship Burmese Muslims Forced Back to Border

Andaman Island Sites Readied for Boat People

Burmese Detention Island Cause for Concern

Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion

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