This year's recent launch of the new Human Development Report 2009, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was a high-powered affair attended by the Thai prime minister and the UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, previously the prime minister of New Zealand. Aptly, the theme of the report is "Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development". The findings of the report are all the more significant because the migration issue is an enormous challenge for Thailand and the international community. While the report encompasses the globe, it invites reflection on how various key issues pertain to Thailand as a country of origin, transit and destination. Currently in the news, a group of Thai workers are also stranded in Europe - without the promised real jobs and pay, subject to dejection and exploitation.
The recently launched UNDP’s ‘Human Development Report 2009’ highlights the issue of migrant workers, and proposes more open and balanced management of cross-border flows. Such a theme is of high relevance to Thailand as a country of origin, transit and destination for many such workers.
The annual releases of the Human Development Report started nearly two decades ago, and follow a different theme every year. They also offer annual assessment of how countries are doing in terms of human development - measured by the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is calculated on the basis of life expectancy, adult literacy, enrolment in education and gross domestic product per capita. This year, Thailand is number 87 in the rankings, with Norway at number 1 and Niger at number 182 in the country listing. We are wedged between Azerbaijan (at 86) and Iran (at 88) in the rankings. Our country is classified as being at the level of "medium human development". In fact, Thailand's ranking fell one place from the previous year. It should be kept in mind that the ranking in the 2009 report is based on data from 2007. Thus it does not yet reflect the recent economic meltdown and the political fragmentation and its consequences. The fluctuations of Thailand's ranking obviously invite caution against complacency.
While the 2009 report examines different forms of migration, much of the report is on the issue of migrant workers - workers across frontiers. The report favours more open and balanced management of cross-border flows, and does not advocate wholesale liberalisation of trans-frontier migration, as it recognises the choices of receiving countries based on manpower needs and national interests. However, by opening borders to more orderly flows, countries can also stem the tide of irregular flows which are susceptible to exploitation by third parties.
Migration has to be seen in the context of the need for more comprehensive sustainable development policies; it is not self-contained, is not a cure-all, but should be part and parcel of equitable development policies and practices which help to expand people's potential. It provides benefits to destination localities and countries with relatively small negative impact. The 2009 report highlights six pillars - 1) liberalise regular channels which allow people to work abroad; 2) guarantee migrants' rights; 3) reduce transactions costs for migrants (e.g. fees and paperwork); 4) "improve outcomes for migrants and destination countries"; 5) "enable benefits from internal mobility"; 6) integrate migration into national development strategies.
To an extent, Thailand is already implementing the six pillars, at least in principle, particularly on the liberalisation of regular channels for migrant workers. The biggest flow is, however, internal migration. Much depends on the generating of choices and opportunities to enable people to stay put rather than being pressured to leave their home locations. In fact, the development planning process in Thailand has highlighted, since Thailand's Fifth National Economic and Social Development Plan some two decades ago, assistance for (backward) rural areas, and this is concretised further by the emphasis on self-sufficiency programmes. It is complemented by poverty reduction strategies which have been quite successful and which respond well to the UN Millennium Development Goals. The Goals target, by 2015, reduction of those in absolute poverty (with less than one dollar income per day) by half the number of those existing in 2000. Thailand has already attained this target. Yet, the inequity - the gap between the rich and poor - is growing, and migration continues unabated.
Of continuing concern is the range of cross-border cases. On the one hand, there are those who flee factors of insecurity, such as persecution and warfare, and human rights violations, such as persons seeking shelter after fleeing from Burma. The Human Development Report does not deal with this group in detail. Locally, they are known as "displaced persons" and "illegal immigrants", while internationally, they tend to be classified as refugees. The current Thai policy towards this group is primarily to provide them with temporary shelter with the possibility of resettlement in third countries. Thai policy can be described as "hospitable-and-hesitant" (the "HAH" factor). It provides basic hospitality, such as no push back to dangers, access to primary education and basic services. But it is hesitant in that generally it does not permit such persons to be employed outside their camps and rules out the possibility of settling permanently in Thailand.
THE HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2009 Lessons on Human Mobility and Implications for Thailand United Nations Development Programme, 229 pp, 2009 Available for downloading at http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/ HDR—2009—EN—Complete.pdf ISBN 978-0-230-23904-3
On the other hand, there is the range of migrant workers who cross borders in search of work, and the Human Development Report examines this phenomenon in greater detail. There is both an influx and outflow. The influx is seen from the millions of Burmese, Laotians and Cambodians seeking to enter Thailand to seek work, while a large number of Thais also exit in search of work elsewhere, particularly now in East Asia. The influx is being regularised by a process of registering migrant workers seeking to work in Thailand, and this is shaped by various memorandums of understanding (MOU) - now existing with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. These MOUs provide official channels for migrant workers to work in the partner countries, subject to the manpower needs of the destination country and various fees to be paid at the source and destination countries. Through this channel, those who come into Thailand enjoy basic social security, such as access to remuneration and health care.
However, it is known that a large number fail to register, and these are known as "irregular migrants" (though locally they tend to be seen as illegal immigrants). But even for this group, there is some access to protection and assistance, in principle, under Thai laws such as the Employment Protection act. These clandestine workers are often the object of human trafficking and smuggling and Thailand has new legislation on the issue which needs to be bolstered by more law enforcement.
From the angle of the six pillars under the Human Development Report, there is more room for Thailand to reduce the transaction costs, particularly in regard to the bilateral arrangements with neighbouring countries and the regularisation (registration) process in Thailand. If the fees are too high and there is too much paperwork, people are likely to shun official channels and opt for clandestine channels. This applies also to the application of the new Employment of Aliens act which provides an overarching framework for the registration of foreign workers in Thailand and their contributions into a special fund to assist their return home. With regard to basic rights, while Thailand responds relatively well on the issue of access to primary education and health care, there remains a key challenge in regard to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The "HAH" factor still prevails regrettably when the issue relates to migrant workers who wish to group up to protect their interests, whether or not this leads ultimately to unionisation of their claims.
The new Human Development Report thus invites us to act wisely by following universal standards, appreciating the contribution of migrants to both the countries of origin and destination countries and communities, while enabling all migrants to be treated humanely.
Vitit Muntarbhorn is a professor of law at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN in a variety of capacities, including as an expert, consultant and special rapporteur.
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