Human Rights and (Im)mobility: Migrants and the State in Thailand

By Derks, Annuska | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and (Im)mobility: Migrants and the State in Thailand


Derks, Annuska, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The human rights of low-skilled migrant workers have in recent years become a central issue in the debate about migrants in Thailand. The Thai government, its ministries and departments, human rights groups, international and local organizations and academics have called attention to the importance, limitations and violations of the human rights of migrant workers in the country.

Yet what are these rights? And how are they enacted? This article analyses the different ways in which human rights are conceived in the context of migrant labour in Thailand in order to draw attention to the penetration of the rhetoric of human rights into local parlance, governance and migrant advocacy (Messer 1993, p. 241). Differing, at times contradictory, conceptions of human rights reveal the paradoxical role of the state and the law in the protection of migrants' rights: the state is held accountable for the protection of human rights of migrants residing upon its territory, and at the same time it creates the conditions for the exclusion of those migrants from protection. While most analyses of this exclusion focus on laws, issues of state sovereignty and the political realm, this article highlights more basic processes. Examining the manifestation of exclusion in the lives of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand and, in particular, the ways in which they seek to enact rights in a situation of apparent rightlessness, it aims to unveil the "chaos of human rights praxis" in everyday migrant life (Goodale 2006, p. 491). I argue that the rights or rightlessness of migrant workers relate not, as is often thought, to migrant "(il)legality" but rather to processes of control and immobilization of migrant labour. The case study of Cambodian migrant workers on the eastern seaboard of Thailand reveals the ways in which, in the context of these processes of immobilization, migrants seek to defy unfair treatment and exploitation through practices, strategies and choices that are, like the migrants themselves, outside the law. These practices, strategies and choices at once challenge and reaffirm migrants' state of exclusion in Thai society.

The data regarding the human rights rhetoric and praxis presented in this article are drawn from a range of sources, including interviews with representatives of international and non-governmental organizations, government policy documents and research reports and newspaper articles on migrant workers in Thailand. Most importantly, the article draws on ethnographic material collected in 2007 and 2008-9 during six months of field research among Cambodian migrant workers in Rayong province, on Thailand's eastern seaboard, and in their home villages in Cambodia. The fieldwork combined participant observation of migrant workers at their work sites and in their living quarters with both informal interviews and in-depth interviews with migrant workers and their families, their employers, local authorities and representatives of migrant-worker support groups.

The Idioms of Migrant Rights

In his speech at the launch of the United Nations Development Programme's 2009 Human Development Report on Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development (UNDP 2009), former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva stated,

Migration ... is an expression of the freedom and desire of each individual to seek better opportunities in life, mostly through the exercise of basic human rights, the pursuit of peace, education and employment. As "Thailand" means "the land of the free", it is our Government's policy to ensure that migrants can enjoy their freedom and social welfare in Thailand while their human rights are duly respected. (Abhisit 2009, emphasis added)

These words reveal some interesting dimensions of the way in which former Prime Minister Abhisit and the Thai government conceive of the rights of migrant workers. His statement draws upon the idea of human rights as "given" in two contradictory ways. …

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