Police in Thailand announced Wednesday that they had arrested 78 people this month – mostly Thais – who were suspected of smuggling in more than 260 migrant workers from Myanmar and other neighboring countries.
The crackdown on suspected traffickers of migrant workers came on orders from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha last month, amid a wave of coronavirus infections, Police Gen. Suwat Changyodsuk, the national police chief, said at a news conference. Authorities had blamed the surge in COVID-19 cases on migrants who had entered the country illegally via the kingdom’s shuttered borders.
“The operations are focused on trafficking rings – brokers and their masterminds – who smuggle illegal workers in or out. We are not focused on suppressing the illegal workers because the government has a clear policy on bringing some of them into the labor system and letting them work,” Suwat said.
The arrests were made from five trafficking rings, between Jan. 1 and Jan. 25, and consisted mostly of Thais and a handful of people from Myanmar, Gen. Damrongsak Kittiprapat, Suwat’s deputy, said.
Police used surveillance cameras equipped with license plate- and face-recognition technology to detect traffickers traveling on the border roads, Suwat said.
The popular routes used by traffickers run from the border district of Mae Sot in Tak province, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) northwest of Bangkok, all the way to the Thai-Malaysian frontier in the insurgency-torn Deep South, he added.
In recent months, 624 migrant workers were arrested along the border in the far south, said Lt. Gen. Kriangkrai Srisuk, head of Internal Security Operations Command for Region 4.
“The ISOC-4 stepped up measures to control the spread of the coronavirus,” Kriangkrai told reporters on a visit to the border line in Narathiwat last week.
“We teamed up with the marines to dispatch mobile teams to keep guard along the border routes.”
Meanwhile, the chief of Thailand’s immigration police, announced that Thai authorities had coordinated with officials in Myanmar to deport 166 Myanmar migrants who were being held at a detention center at the Ranong Immigration office in northwestern Thailand. The deportation was expected to take place on Thursday, Lt. Col. Sompong Chingduang, the immigration bureau commissioner, told reporters on Tuesday.
Last month, Prayuth warned that his government would crack down on syndicates that smuggled migrants into the country in defiance of Thailand’s months-long ban on the re-entry of foreign workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The PM blamed migrant workers for what was then the biggest surge in coronavirus cases since the first infection was detected in Thailand in January 2020.
According to police statistics, arrests of illegal migrants fell in 2020 to 68,942, compared with 208,791 in 2019, due to the pandemic-related border shutdown.
Still, as Thailand had successfully limited the spread of new infections and allowed businesses to reopen, those migrant laborers who had returned to their countries started to come back via illegal border crossings. Once here, many evaded a mandatory 14-day quarantine, health officials had said last month.
Thailand had been among the least affected by the global pandemic but the COVID-19 caseload shot up after more than 400 new infections were confirmed on one day, Dec. 22, mostly among migrant workers from Myanmar, at the country’s largest seafood market-complex in Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok.
This infection cluster spread to the rest of Thailand, which now has more than 14,000 COVID-19 cases and a total of 75 virus-related deaths.
Work permit extension
The government estimates that the number of illegal migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos is around 500,000.
It directed the police immigration bureau to record these workers’ biometric information through online channels by April 16, so the labor ministry could then consider issuing them 2-year work permits.
Toward the end of last year, the Thai cabinet approved a program to temporarily legalize undocumented workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, as a measure to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
A Thai workers’ rights group said that in addition to the leniency shown to the 500,000 illegal workers, the police should announce clearly that the migrants would not be prosecuted.
“If the government announces clearly that it waives punishment for those workers, all sides will feel comfortable and Thailand will see gains to its workforce,” Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator with the Migrant Working Group, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Separately, nearly 2 million other migrant workers are in the process of applying to extend their work permits for two years, according to an official cabinet announcement this week.
Applications will be processed by September 2021, by which time the workers who are jobless would need to have found employers. After that, the foreign laborers have until Nov. 12 to register with the interior ministry.
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