Thai officials on Thursday deported 158 undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Myanmar who had been held at a detention center near the border in southern Thailand.
Nearly another 100 more were expected to be deported to Myanmar in the coming days, said Thai officials in Ranong province who were coordinating with authorities from the neighboring country.
Ranong Gov. Somkiat Srisanet, a Myanmar official in Ranong, Htet Hway Pyo, along with other Thai officials brought the deportees to a customs pier here to board 13 boats destined for Kawthoung, a nearby township in Myanmar.
“The manifest has 166 names but some were repeated, the correct number is 158,” Somkiat told the reporters during the deportation. “Public health officials conducted COVID prevention measures. We affirm that we treat people of all nations well.”
Before the workers boarded the boats, the Myanmar official called out their names one by one to send them for temperature checks.
The 3rd Navy Region, which oversees the Andaman Seas to the west of Thailand, added that the 158 workers who were deported – including 16 women and 5 children – had been cleared of immigration-related offenses. Officials didn’t disclose how long the workers had been held at a local detention center.
Somkiat said Thursday’s batch of deportees included those whose hometowns in Myanmar – such as Kawthoung township, Mergui and Tavoy – were near Ranong.
“We want one or two more days to be able to send the second batch of 97, and for about 200 others we can send them back in another cycle,” Somkiat said.
“The Ranong detention center can accommodate 300 to 400 people and many workers are still in police stations in other provinces and are transferred to Ranong periodically for deportation through Ranong.”
Myanmar labor ‘crucial to the Thai economy’
The deportation came after Thai officials sought help from Myanmar to take back the more than 400 detainees, who said they were under stress because they were staying unhealthy conditions in cramped cells at the detention center, Lt. Col. Sompong Chingduang, the immigration bureau commissioner, had said on Tuesday.
A Myanmar academic at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand said officials should improve conditions in detention facilities.
“Myanmar labor is crucial to the Thai economy, therefore detention facilities should have good safety standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not just among them but for officials as well,” Salai Bawi, told BenarNews.
One migrant worker said he was happy he was going home but was concerned about his family members who remained in Thailand.
“I’m very glad I can go home to meet my relatives, but I’m concerned about my family members who are still working in Surat Thani,” Sein Sein Aye, one of the workers, told BenarNews.
“If possible, I would like to come back to Thailand to work legally.”
Thailand announced restrictions on travel and businesses in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to go home.
Still, as Thailand had successfully limited the spread of new coronavirus 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 15,000 COVID-19 cases and a total of 76 virus-related deaths.
Meanwhile, 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.
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, police 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 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.
Nearly 2 million migrant workers are in the process of applying to extend their work permits for two years, according to an official cabinet announcement this week.
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