Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Thailand's Responses to Transnational Migration during Economic Growth and Economic Downturn

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Thailand's Responses to Transnational Migration during Economic Growth and Economic Downturn

Article excerpt

This paper first provides a brief overview of immigration into Thailand historically and particularly since the 1970s, and emigration from the country since the 1960s. It then examines migration policies pertaining to both flows, and shows that immigrants receive an unwelcome reaction from the state while Thai workers overseas receive state support. A third section examines issues arising from both flows, such as work conditions and welfare, recruitment practices, legality and documentation, and public response. The paper concludes with a discussion of economic contraction and the changing scenarios in transnational migration in Thailand.

Located in Southeast Asia where population movements are not unusual, Thailand has a particular status because it is both a sending and a receiving country for transnational migration. Large-scale emigration started during the 1970s, while current immigration trends commenced in the 1990s. This report presents the migration trends of the country, its migration policies, the national politics of transnational migration, and the state's responses to the migration phenomenon in the wake of the regional economic downturn.

1. Migration Trends

Immigration to Thailand

Thailand has a long experience with immigration, particularly overseas Chinese immigration, during the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Migrants from Chaozhou, Fujian, Canton, Hainan, and Hakka migrated to Thailand mainly in two big waves during the periods 767-1850 and 1905-17, and Thailand had at least an estimated 200,000 Chinese in as early as 1822 (Skinner 1957). During the late nineteenth century, Thailand faced a labour shortage. The Chinese migrants were welcomed to the country because they contributed to the Thai economy as a large and inexpensive labour force for agriculture, the fisheries industry, and the construction of infrastructure. However, at the end of the century, Chinese migrants faced an anti-Chinese movement led by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) who initiated a campaign for official Thai nationalism and used the Chinese as scapegoats. Later, in the 1940s, Prime Minister Phibulsongkhram led another anti-Chinese movement, which resulted in the naturalization of most Chinese immigrants in Thailand, especially after 1949 when China became a communist republic (Supang 1997). Since then, Thailand has never planned for or encouraged a similar, significant influx of immigrants.

It was only after 1975 that Thailand again experienced a major influx of immigrants when hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons from Indochina fled their countries. Due to changes in the socialist regimes of the Indochinese states, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese refugees sought asylum in Thailand. Overall, an estimated 320,155 Lao, 566,398 Cambodians, and 158,006 Vietnamese migrated temporarily into Thailand (Supang 1994). Although other Southeast Asian countries also hosted large numbers of Indochinese refugees, Thailand received the largest inflows of these refugees. By the late 1980s, the majority of the refugees and asylum seekers were either resettled in third countries or repatriated to their countries of origin, with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR). Thailand has never had a policy of accepting refugees for local settlement.

The most recent wave of immigration started in the 1990s. Due to the internationalization and uneven development of regional economies, people from neighbouring countries whose economic development progressed at a slower rate than Thailand's began to migrate to Thailand in search of better job opportunities and higher wages. The biggest number of migrant workers were from Myanmar, followed by the Chinese, South Indians, Cambodians, and the Lao. In 1996 the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare estimated that there were 733,640 undocumented labour migrants in Thailand (see Table 1). These migrants were found mainly in Bangkok, other major cities, and the border towns in Thailand. …

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