Thu, Aug 02, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Desperation finds a home along Thai-Myanmar border

Unofficial deportations, extortion and poverty thrive in a Thai frontier town where a porous border between poverty and hope fuels rich trade in migrant misery

By Ian MacKinnon  /  The Guardian, Mae Sot, Thailand

Two trucks with cages crammed with Burmese migrant workers halt abruptly beside the Thai-Myanmar frontier's river landing stage. Detainees, standing and sitting, are pressed hard against one another and the wire mesh that is their temporary prison.

The deportees appear resigned to their fate. When the doors fly open, 140 men and a lone woman file out and down steep steps on the Thai side of the border to a waiting barge. No guards are needed. Fifteen meters across the muddy, fast-flowing Moei River they are back in Myanmar.

Uniformed men herd them into a bamboo stockade of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a rebel splinter group that has made peace with Myanmar's ruling junta. To win their liberty back in their homeland, each must pay the equivalent of US$51, a vast sum for impoverished laborers.

Each year up to 100,000 deported migrants pass back this way. Social workers believe the DKBA is in league with corrupt Thai immigration staff who get a cut of the profits from these unofficial deportations.

People-trafficking preys on the most desperate of people, fleeing conflict and poverty. It is a small part of a vast murky trade that buoys the Thai economy. At least 1.5 million Burmese work in Thai construction, fisheries and agriculture, filling poorly paid jobs shunned by Thais. Just a third are legally registered, leaving a million vulnerable to raids, deportation and extortion.

In a safehouse in Mae Sot, a Thai border town awash with Burmese migrants, Moe Swe shelters those rescued from the DKBA's clutches and others who fled abusive employers. It is a perilous business. He briefly fled Thailand himself two years ago, after receiving death threats from powerful vested interests.

Mae Sot -- frontier town

Mae Sot is every bit the frontier town, the wild west of Thailand -- but with an almost entirely Burmese cast. It is filled with migrants trying to make ends meet, dissidents fleeing the Myanmar junta and its conspicuous "spooks."

Markets by the riverside sell every conceivable kind of smuggled duty-free commodity, though cigarettes are the favored currency. A Friendship Bridge crosses the Moei river with a checkpoint and the odd car. Spoil from construction has formed river islands that have become disputed territory.

But crammed boats ply Mae Sot's numerous piers across the border river, with not an official in sight. The far bank's Karen state is controlled by the junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council, and the DKBA, which split from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

The state capital, Manerplaw, fell in 1995 to DKBA forces backed by the junta. But sporadic fighting continues as the army attacks the KNLA, driving refugees and migrants across the border.

"We suspect the Thai officials get money from the DKBA for the deported migrants," he said. "There are 20 landing stages on the river, but the workers are only released at the one known as Pier 999, opposite the DKBA's so-called reception center."

Two hundred garment factories and thousands of farms in Mae Sot thrive on cheap labor that floods across the porous border. Some of the 100,000 migrants here have work permits, but many do not.

A squad of armed Thai border police last week staged a 4am raid 30km outside the town in Waylay village, a collection of bamboo shacks without running water or electricity. Half the 100 inhabitants, without work permits, ran. Four were caught and immediately deported.

Wai Lin Oo, 18, heard no warning. It was a costly mistake. His mother Khin Thet, 40, rescued him by slipping across into Myanmar herself, but had to pay nearly US$20 from the family's meager savings for a day-pass to bring him back.

With other villagers, he scrapes a living planting roses, earning US$2 a day -- half the minimum wage. Yet he is luckier than 11-year-old Win Htat Thu who gets work erratically laying chemical fertilizer around the roses -- without any protective clothing.

"We came because we hadn't enough money," said the boy, who receives no schooling. "But here there's not enough either; just enough food. If any of us gets sick, there's no money for medicine."

Bangkok's building sites and factories are the most lucrative workplaces. Although migrants there are paid as little as their rural cousins, the work is steadier, giving greater opportunity to earn.

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