Thursday, January 29, 2009

‘Illegal Immigrants’? Who’s Threatening Whom

The Irrawaddy News

The issue of migrants has returned as a security concern in Thailand, where the government has responded to reports that Thai officials were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya refugees by vowing to crack down on “illegal migrants.”

Not for the first time, Thailand’s treatment of migrants has become a focus of international attention. Last year, 54 Burmese workers suffocated to death while they were being transported in a sealed truck to the Thai resort island of Phuket. That incident was blamed on the driver, who failed to ensure that the vehicle was properly ventilated. This time, Thai authorities have been faulted for allegedly towing boatloads of Rohingya out to sea without adequate food or water.

While the exact circumstances surrounding this latest incident are still under investigation, it is clear that, despite the official rhetoric, Thailand’s security fears are far less serious than those of the migrants, whose very lives are at risk from the moment they enter the country.

This danger does not derive simply from accidents or even from abuses at the hands of officials, but rather from the juridical-political treatment of migrant workers, who fit into a category of disposable labor created by the state-business alliance. That is why millions of Burmese migrants are able to enter the Thai workforce through the back door, only to be declared a “threat” when they are not needed.

In response to the Rohingya incident, Thailand’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, reiterated the country’s standard position on the migrant issue: “We have to solve the illegal immigrant problem, otherwise it will affect our security, economy and the opportunities of Thai laborers.”

As an Oxford-trained economist, Abhisit belongs to the liberal economic tradition, which removes migrant workers entirely from statistical calculations of production and profits, seeing them only as a liability.

It is not that the economic elite are unaware of the positive role of migrant labor; they simply do not want to acknowledge it. If they did, their attempts to exploit migrant labor would be called into question, and that is a risk they consider too great to take.

Treating some migration as “illegal” is to deny an enormously important facet of human history. From pre-recorded times, human beings have been on the move. Modern Thais, for instance, are the descendants of ethnic Tai who migrated from southern China millennia ago. Chinese Thais whose ancestors were more recent migrants have also had a major impact on Thai society after decades of social, economic and political assimilation.

In pre-colonial times, people did not cross borders; but in more recent times, borders have crossed people. Before the creation of national borders, people frequently moved back and forth between the different tributary states that now constitute parts of modern Thailand. These states did not have fixed political and geographical boundaries. Nor were they the vassals of the same powerful kingdoms or empires; at times, there were independent. Thus, they were neither Siamese (Thai) nor Burmese.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, however, the rulers completed the bounding up of territories into nation-states with fixed political boundaries to create modern Burma and Thailand. Human migration goes on, but it is now restricted by these artificial political borders.

Thus, if anything is illegal, it is not the people who cross the borders, but the national borders themselves, which were drawn up undemocratically by those from the power centers. (This is not to reject political borders altogether, but rather to highlight the need for more humane borders.)

If we replace the artificial national borders with the regional border of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Program, under which Thailand has been extracting resources, we can see the senselessness of regarding Burmese as “outsiders.” It is unfair to fix political geography at the nation-state level to exclude the Burmese and deny their rights, while scaling up the economic geography to the regional level to accumulate profits.

Despite Thailand’s hand in displacing people in dam and gas pipeline areas in Burma, some continue to claim that the political crisis in Burma is solely responsible for the migrant issue. In fact, Burmese rulers and domestic business partners, as well as their counterparts in Thailand, China, India, other investor countries and the Asian Development Bank (which provides the GMS cooperation framework) share responsibility.

Burma’s political crisis is not an isolated event; rather, it is part of the sick drama of the global market economy, in which the Burmese regime’s international business partners suck resources such as gas and electricity out of the country while displacing people from their homes.

Looking deep into the very nature of this global economic system, propagated and led by Europe and North America, we can see that the system itself is anti-people. That is, it forces all countries to compete on the world market. One way to survive in this market is to stay competitive by securing natural resources and labor as cheaply as possible.

The transnational alliance of elites, united under the GMS Program, hijacks resources in Burma and dispossesses its people in a process David Harvey of the City University of New York calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Among the alliance members, Thailand is the biggest winner, drawing both resources and labor from Burma. That is why Thai policymakers are deaf to the Burmese cry for democracy and migrant justice.

But the dispossessed people do not become fully exploitable until they have been made “illegal” and labeled a threat. Thailand’s migrant registration system is partly responsible for the creation of “illegal immigrants.” Nicholas de Genova of Columbia University calls this the “legal production of migrant illegality,” in the sense that the so-called “illegal immigrants” are produced by legal processes whose narrow definition of who could be included ends up excluding a majority of migrant workers.

Indeed, the issue of “illegal migrants” was not visible in Thailand until 1995, when the government decided to implement the regular registration of undocumented migrants, according to Yougyuth Chalamwong, research director of the Thailand Development Research Institute. This is not to disregard migrant registration completely, but simply to shed light on the calculated manipulations of the government.

A good example is the 1999 registration, which allowed migrant workers to work in 37 provinces, down from 54 in 1998. The revised regulation ended up generating new undocumented workers outside these 37 provinces who had registered one year earlier. Ten years have passed, but the story continues. The newly “illegalized” workers then became the subjects of deportation.

Yet, it is “deportability,” and not actual deportation per se, that matters, as rightly pointed out by de Genova. The government’s attempts to deport migrant workers merely serve to destabilize the situation of migrants (both registered and unregistered), so that they become vulnerable and therefore more ready to accept exploitative working conditions.

Police crackdowns are thus meant to secure the physical presence of migrant workers while excluding them from political and legal entitlements. The crackdown on migrant workers by calling them a threat, therefore, is indeed the elites’ dirty laundry of their anti-people transnational profit accumulations.

Therefore, the future challenges for humanitarian groups would include re-connecting the role of migrant workers to the Thai economy for a better distribution of profits. Moreover, since migrant issue is embedded in the broader global political economy, activists need to go beyond the enclave of locally celebrated communities towards engaging with the networks of national and global alliances for a more democratic global economic operation.

The most immediate task: practitioners, activists and journalists should themselves stop using the language of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘migrant problems’ uncritically.

Sai Soe Win Latt is a Ph.D. student of geography at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

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