Managing migration in the Greater Mekong Subregion: Regulation, extra-legal relation and extortion


Correspondence: Sai S.W. Latt (email:


One major aim of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) integration programme, supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), is to foster regional ‘community’ for sharing resources, people and financial flows. This ‘community’ is the target of both economic growth and poverty reduction. The emphasis on ‘community’ in the ADB's mushrooming quantity of documents raises important questions about what kinds of people are included, in what roles and with what kinds of support and protection. This paper explores these questions in relation to the political economy of regulating ethnic migrants from Myanmar working in Thailand. This paper argues that extra-legal relations between migrants and state/para-state agents constitute a crucial part of regulation. In transferring the regulation of migration to the national scale, the ADB inadvertently reinforces national differences between Thais and cross-border people. Additionally, the complicated and fluctuating implementation of national regulations in both countries leaves migrants subject to violence and extortion from state and quasi-state agents in Thailand. This paper shows that the dynamics of global capitalism require ‘deportable labour’ supplied by ethnic migrants who are included in the GMS community as the most invisible, vulnerable and exploited members.


The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)1 Economic Cooperation Program, sponsored by the ADB, held its fourth summit in Nay Pyi Daw in December 2011. The summit confirmed that the countries in the GMS region have benefited from cooperation. Throughout the summit, speeches and media reports highlighted the spirit of regional community, integration and connectivity. Depicting the GMS as a friendly community has been the official theme of the GMS for the past two decades to facilitate regional natural resource sharing. In the context of this supposedly amicable regional community, the experiences of impoverished cross-border people who have nothing other than ‘unskilled’ labour to share with the region demand critical scrutiny, which is the focus of this paper.

Context and theoretical considerations

Most migration in the GMS has been the cross-border movement of poor peoples using informal migration channels (ADB, 2009a), with Thailand as the main destination country. According to most estimates, Thailand hosts three to four million irregular migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. About 80 per cent of these migrants are from Myanmar. Up to mid-2011, only two million workers were registered with the Thai government; more than 1.5 million of these were Myanmar nationals (MMC, 2011). Apart from irregular migration, Thailand has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to officially recruit low-skilled labour (see Kelly, 2011; IOM, 2008).

The signing of MoUs and increased cross-border flows are treated in GMS publications as signs of border opening. ADB accounts claim that post-Cold War peace has encouraged more open national borders for regional cooperation and prosperity in the GMS. Likewise, official discourses celebrate border opening, increased cross-border economic activities and relaxation of state control (ADB, 2005).

Specific analyses show, however, that such discourses are problematic, since border opening goes hand in hand with new forms of regulation and restriction. Kusakabe's (2009) study on women traders in the borderlands in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia illustrates that the benefits of cross-border trade are lost to informal taxation by state officials, as border trade is subject to a regulatory regime. Walker (1999) argues that the formation of Economic Quadrangle in the Upper Mekong generated a new form of regulatory regime in which state officials promote, administer and tax cross border activities.

Careful examination of ADB activities in the GMS reveals that the Bank's promotion of regionalization is not about ‘erasing’ borders altogether, but about ‘easing’ border-crossing by facilitating transport and communication networks and by standardizing regional border administration (see ADB, 2005). Likewise, GMS programmes are planned exclusively by state officials, as the ADB ensures that ‘the GMS countries have strong ownership of the Program’ (ADB, 2010: 8). This reflects what Jayasuriya calls ‘regulatory regionalism’, highlighting that regionalization ‘runs on the tracks of the national policy processes’ (2008: 29).

The state presence is most visible in the context of migration. Researchers studying migration and border politics show that regulation of mobility is not being relaxed. While arrangements ease mobility for professionals and ‘low risk’ travellers (e.g. NEXUS programme in North America, Schengen visa in Europe, and planned ASEAN visa in Southeast Asia), mobility of refugees and unskilled migrants has been restricted (Sparke, 2006; Zaiotti, 2011; Curly & Wong, 2008). In the Mekong region, state regulation in the context of regional cooperation is manifested in what High (2008) calls ‘the mobility of the marginal’; her study finds that the new cooperation between Thailand and Laos works to reduce ‘undocumented’ migration, trafficking and movement of insurgency groups. Arnold and Pickles' work (2011) on factory workers in Mae Sod on the Thailand-Myanmar border also illustrates tight control over ‘illegal’ immigration.

In Thailand, there are two major acts governing immigration: The Immigration Act (1979) and The Foreign Employment Act (2008), which replaced the old Foreign Employment Act 1978. Since 1992, Thailand has regularized cross-border migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia through annual ad hoc cabinet decisions (Supang & Ratchada, 2010). Since then, Thailand has treated migration as if it can be ‘turned on and off at will’, to borrow the phrase from Marfleet (2006: 168). This switch often produces so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants. For instance, the 1999 migrant registration allowed migrants to work only in 37 provinces, down from 54 in 1998 (Martin, 2004: 19). The revised regulation generated new undocumented migrants who had registered outside these 37 provinces one year earlier (Martin, 2004). Such ad hoc practices continue into the 2000s, sustaining what de Genova (2002) calls the ‘legal production of migrant “illegality”’, in which legal processes include migrants by transforming them into illegal subjects. As Coutin (1998) claims, migrant restriction generates ‘the space of non-existence’ in which the migrants are physically present, but legally and socially excluded.

State regulation involves more than legal processes; it is complicated by practices of surveillance (Foucault, 1995). Studying northern Thailand provinces, Pongsawat (2007) and Thant (2010) illustrate Thailand's citizenship regime in which minority groups and migrants are classified into different categories. They are issued various types of ‘hill tribe’ and ‘alien’ identity cards. Travellers within Thailand must present identification cards at various police checkpoints along the highways. At the checkpoints, they often receive ill treatment from officials. Similarly, Aung (2010) describes the security establishment in the border town of Mae Sod. Aung includes measures such as health mechanisms (hospitals, medical centres), labour mechanisms (Ministry of Labour, employment department), human security mechanisms (Ministry of Social Development and Human Security) and national security mechanisms (Army, Police, Immigration), which all keep surveillance of migrant labourers.

Migrant restriction, however, is not really to restrict migration itself, but to restrict migrants' rights in the competitive global capitalist economy, which requires disposable labour (Sharma, 2006). Because of the need to sustain a cheap and compliant workforce, governments encourage the entry of irregular migrants whose vulnerable position means they can both be exploited more than legal migrants and deported at any time (Marfleet, 2006). As de Genova (2002) argues, it is not deportation per se, but ‘deportability’ that matters. Deportability makes migrants vulnerable and forces them to bear exploitation. The point here is not that border opening should be equated to an unregulated flow of migration, but to note that opening is accompanied by new sets of regulation that entail more vulnerability for migrants.

Existing studies about regulation often focus on formal processes and practices (legal codes, government policies, institutions, formal procedures and implementation, surveillance), but miss the dynamics of informal or extra-legal practices. My empirical discussion elaborates on the extra-legal dynamics of regulation. The central arguments of the paper are as follows: (1) extra-legal relations between migrants and state/para-state agents in the form of ‘extortion’ constitutes a crucial component of migrant regulation; (2) in addition to extortion as an unintended consequence, the ADB encouragement of national migrant regulation inadvertently reinforces national differences between Thais and cross-border people; and (3) the dynamics of global capitalism require ‘deportable labour’ supplied by ethnic migrants who are included in the GMS community as the most invisible, vulnerable and exploited members.

The paper first introduces the research context, briefly illustrating the geography, demographic background and research methods. The next section focuses on the ADB approach to migration, examining the Working Group on Human Resource Development and the ADB/GMS Background Paper on migration. The discussion notes the gap between the Bank's ‘stated’ encouragement of migrant regulation at the national scale, and its ‘actual’ financial and programmatic focus on human trafficking and disease control, keeping silent on migrant rights and protections. Following that, the paper discusses exploitative formal migrant regulations in Thailand. Subsections on legal extortion, semi-legal extortion and illegal extortion detail how complicated and fluctuating official processes of migrant regulation create conditions in which state agencies and para-state agents can extract money from migrants. A conclusion then knits together what happens to migrant workers through migrant regulation implemented by the national governments but largely disconnected from ADB concerns, and how the vagaries of state regulation directly enable informal regulation involving extortion and violence. These conditions create migrants as the ‘deportable labour’ necessary for global economic growth.

Research background and methods

My study focuses on ethnic migrants from Myanmar working in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand. As a border province, Chiang Mai is a major destination for ethnic migrants from Myanmar (Figure 1 ). Since the mid-1990s, between 300 000 to 500 000 people from Myanmar have crossed the border into northern Thailand. The vast majority of them are Shan, but there are also small communities of ethnic Karenni, PaO, Rohingya, Lahu and Kachin. Shan from eastern Myanmar, a Tai-speaking people, have long been part of what is now northern Thailand. While people often move back and forth between eastern Myanmar and northern Thailand, there has also been a large Shan population in northern Thailand for centuries. Although recently Shan migrants escaped from oppression in Myanmar, Thailand denies that they are ‘displaced persons’ (the official term for refugees in Thailand) because they did not flee intense military conflict. Thus, they are only referred to as ‘illegal’ economic migrants (Latt, 2008). Denied refugee status and protection, they work in Chiang Mai as cheap labour in agriculture, construction, domestic work, and as sex workers and employees at low-end restaurants.

Figure 1.

Migration routes from Myanmar to Thailand.

Data collection for this research was conducted in Chiang Mai province between June 2010 and October 2011, covering migrant workers, government officials and NGO representatives. This paper uses data collected from 130 research participants (120 Shan, 8 Karenni and 2 PaO), 9 Thai and Myanmar officials, 8 NGO representatives and 2 employees from Thai broker companies that service migrant workers. I also communicated with officials from the ADB based in Manila.

I mainly used in-depth interviews with government officials, NGO representatives and staff members, and both in-depth and semi-structured interviews with migrant workers. I usually used the snowball research method to recruit government officials for my study. The snowball method also helped recruit migrant workers through my research assistants. In addition, I asked colleagues to introduce me to ethnic migrants other than Shan to ensure that my research sample included members of different groups, and men and women of different ages working in various sectors in Chiang Mai.

Migration under the ADB

The ADB recognizes the importance of migrant labour to economic growth. The ADB background paper prepared for the fourth GMS Dialogue in Beijing in May 2009 indicates that ‘Labor migration enables the receiving countries to overcome internal labor shortages, which helps them to sustain economic growth and competitiveness’ (ADB, 2009a: 8). This background paper (hereafter the Paper) appears to be a populist document pointing out the lack of rights and protection and the livelihood insecurity faced by unskilled migrants. Yet, the Paper's broader aim is to control labour mobility. Two points from the Paper are worth highlighting. First, it describes unregulated migration as potentially problematic:

… irregular migration makes it more difficult for governments to regulate labor markets and harness the benefits of migration … [Existing] laissez-faire policies may appeal to the private sector that focuses on short-term gains; however, when viewed from the perspective of the long-term investor, such an approach to migration management is passive and will lead to increasing political and social costs … (ADB, 2009a: 7).

Second, it rationalizes regulation as necessary to regional integration:

… the absence of rigorous regulation means that the labor market is not truly integrated. Labor migration occurs mostly in an unregulated environment – meaning that there is little control over how it contributes, or detracts from the labor market, particularly in the medium and long term. Despite the importance of regional labor migration for economic competitiveness and growth, developments in this area lag behind other regional integration initiatives, particularly in the flow of goods and services (ADB, 2009a: 26).

The Paper argues that unregulated migration undermines sustainable competitive growth, potentially causing political and social costs. The Paper calls for effective management of migration on the basis that ‘the subregion could benefit much more from international migration if the flows become more regulated and better managed’ (ADB, 2009a: 23). The irony here is that while the conventional process of regional integration requires freer movement of capital, goods and services (i.e. deregulation), integration of labour mobility requires ‘rigorous’ regulation.

The Paper recommends providing more protection to migrant workers, ‘with demonstrated advantages to registered (i.e. “legal”) migrants as an incentive to register’ (ADB, 2009a: 27). In practice, this discriminates against undocumented migrants. The Paper is pro-regularization without addressing (1) the complex dynamics of undocumented migrants whose political and financial constraints have forced them to remain undocumented, and (2) the violence enacted upon them for being undocumented. The Paper is in line with the broader ADB approach towards human resource management, reflected in the Working Group on Human Resource Development (WGHRD) of the GMS.

Human Resource Development (HRD) is one of 11 sectors of the GMS programme that approaches migration in terms of managing risks. To the ADB/GMS, these dangers are largely concerned with human trafficking and communicable diseases. The WGHRD, formed in 1995, pays disproportionate attention to anti-human trafficking and disease control rather than to social protection and skill development of cross-border migrants. For example, the Working Group's five strategic thrusts in the plan of action are education and skills development, safe labour migration, disease control, social development and strengthening institutional links. According to the HRD strategic framework (2009–12), funding for safe labour migration is less than USD 1 million, far less than for disease control (USD 96.7 million) and anti-human trafficking (USD 30.4 million). Even then, projects for safe labour migration are not directed at migrants, but to ‘study’ topics such as the relationship between economy, migration and demographic change (ADB, 2009b: 12).

The GMS has not completely ignored protection for migrants in terms of wage-related security (wages, accident compensation), health-related security (access to medical services) and protection from physical violence. Indeed, GMS country delegates raised concerns over labour protection and welfare during meetings, but security aspects – human trafficking and communicable diseases – often dominated the discussion. The Bank's approach to migration is not to develop livelihood opportunities for the poor, but to focus on managing risks that are perceived to be undermining the Bank's overall free market agenda (Rosser, 2009).

Before discussing national migrant regulation, it is necessary to mention that the processes and outcomes of migrant regulation in Thailand are disconnected from what the ADB does at the regional level. One reason is that the Bank needs to avoid certain migrant issues (rights, protection, legal status) about which member governments are sensitive. All governments can cooperate on human trafficking and disease control. The Bank supports regulating ‘illegal’ immigration, thought to be the cause of trafficking. Yet, given that the member states block external intervention in the name of state sovereignty, the Bank is unable to take a stance on the unforeseen consequences of national regulations. Thus, the Bank ends up encouraging regulation but without any ability to shape it, or to have officials at the regional level responsible for migrant issues.

The tenth WGHRD meeting, held in Vientiane in May 2011, was attended by more than 80 delegates – out of which 10 were from Thailand – from GMS countries, international institutions and donor organizations. Yet, no delegate from Thailand was responsible for protection and rights of migrant workers (other than trafficking and health). A delegate representing Thailand International Development Cooperation Agency (TICA) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that I consult the Ministry of Labour, as the migrant issue is ‘quite technical and is concerned with laws’. Yet, no official from the Ministry of Labour responsible for cross-border labourers was present at the meeting. Moreover, Thailand's national contact person for Labour and Migration is in charge of skill development, but her specialization is not migration. Similarly the ADB has not appointed officials for migrant protection. For example, the working group webpage listed Mr David Ablett (education specialist) and Ms Uzma Hoque (social development specialist) as the ADB/GMS's contact persons for labour and migration respectively.2 Mr Ablett told me that he was not responsible for labour migration and protection but skill development, and Ms Hoque responded that she was not in charge of migration issues. This points to the gap between the management of migration at the GMS level and the regulation of cross-border migration within national domains. Consequently, processes of regulation and outcomes in Thailand discussed below appear somewhat unconnected to the discussion on the ADB above. The issue is precisely that the ADB approach to managing migration does not deal with protecting migrants. Migrants are only subject to formal and informal forms of regulation within each country, as discussed next.

National migrant regulation in Thailand

Thailand signed an MoU with Myanmar in 2003 on cooperation in the employment of migrant workers. This MoU established general agreements on procedures related to labour recruitment, repatriation and protection. The most significant outcome forces migrants to acquire temporary passports from their home countries and visas from destination countries. This entails the Thai state to verify the nationality of ‘illegal’ workers in Thailand, a process known as ‘Nationality Verification’ (NV).

The purpose of NV is rooted in security thinking. Mr Nana Rattanaruth from the Ministry of Labour explains that one reason for implementing NV is to ensure that a migrant is really the person he/she claims to be. Moreover, the sending governments are required to identify migrants' origin and permanent addresses. Otherwise, the Thai government cannot trace a migrant who commits a crime and escapes. Similar official anxieties about irregular migrants are often reported in the media, blaming migrants for bringing in diseases, drugs and crime (Latt, 2008). NV also ensures that migrants return to their ‘permanent address’ after the completion of employment terms, a maximum of four years.

These anxieties about insecurity caused by migrants not returning result in the militarization of treatment of migrant workers. For instance, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva issued Order 125/2553 in June 2010 titled ‘Establishment of a Special Centre to Suppress, Arrest and Prosecute Alien Workers Who Are Working Underground’, an extension of Cabinet Resolution (19 January 2010) providing ‘the authority for prosecution of alien workers who did not enter into the NV process and who hence were working underground …’ Order 125/2553 authorizes establishment of an operation centre at the Employment Department in the Ministry of Labour. A committee to administer the centre was to comprise commanders of the Royal Thai Police Force, the army, the navy, immigration, the Police General and high-ranking officials responsible for migrant workers. The composition of the committee suggests the militarization of the regulation of migration.

Even before this order was signed, there were incidents of violent suppression. In late 2008, the Thai Navy set 992 ethnic Rohingyas from western Myanmar adrift in the Andaman Sea in boats without engines and food, costing the lives of 550 people (Al Jazeera, 2009). Rohingyas are Muslim minority refugees from western Myanmar who have been fleeing to Thailand in the recent years. Many of them end up surviving as ‘illegal immigrants’ in Thailand's cities. Similarly in 2008, 54 migrants died of suffocation as they travelled secretly to southern Thailand. During the first six months of 2010, a total of 23 migrants died from incidents related to police chases.

Regardless of such human costs, the Thai government insists on strict control. Mr Supat Gukun, director general of the Employment Department said, ‘We will have to arrest and deport those alien workers who have not kept in line with prescribed procedures’ (Inter Press Service, 2010). Migrant workers must have their nationality verified in order to stay and work legally in Thailand. Without it, they are denied protection even in life threatening conditions. For instance, Mr Gukun said in the context of 13 migrants who lost their lives to a police chase in Southern Thailand in May 2010, ‘If they come legally, we welcome them and protect them the same as local people. … If we're talking about migrant workers, that means they are here working through legal channels. If they cross borders and find themselves a job, they're illegal’ (Bangkok Post, 2010). These violent measures underscore that there is no place for illegal migrants in the friendly ‘community’ of an integrated GMS.

To elaborate, the ADB publication ‘Connecting Nations, Linking People’ (2005) claims that

Although the PPP [Phnom Penh Plan for Development Management programme] alumni come from the six countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), they call themselves ‘GMS citizens’, an apt reference to the growing community of Mekong leaders and managers who make up the critical mass of change agents that the PPP has established … (2005: 29).

This reference to ‘GMS citizens’ runs counter to Mr Gukun saying that migrants who do not verify their nationality will not be welcomed and protected. It is even more telling when Abhisit Vejjajiva issued Order 125/2553 to suppress migrants just two months after the First Mekong River Commission Summit, where he stated that the Mekong River should not be a division, but ‘should be seen as a river where traditions and cultures as well as a common striving for developmental progress and prosperity converge’ (MRC, 2010). The purpose of the discussion here is not to define what the notion of ‘community’ is and how it should be, but to highlight that the rosy community often mentioned by the Bank and government officials is not relevant to poor migrants in the region.

Due to NGO opposition, Order 123/2554 has been relaxed but it has not been revoked completely. Although the order is not operating as intended, it still creates possibilities and even acceptability for violence against migrant workers. For example, two ethnic Kayah migrants in Chiang Mai were brutally attacked by their employer's son in December 2010. One of them died and the other, named Taw Law, survived. The attack left Taw Law with his intestine outside his body. Once Taw Law was discharged from the hospital, he was taken to Samkhamphan district police office outside Chiang Mai city, where he spent one night for ‘investigation’ before he could fully recover. He was then transferred to Chiang Mai Immigration Detention Centre where he spent 10 to 15 days in jail. Instead of being protected, he was confined at the Chiang Mai immigration department because he was not staying at the place identified on his document. Taw Law is registered yet ‘illegal’: a systemic failure that criminalizes the victim of violence (discussed below). Chiang Mai immigration had listed him for deportation to Myanmar, but a Burmese community organization helped him stay in Chiang Mai by bribing the police. Taw Law has not received any compensation from his employer or the government, but he funds his medical treatment by volunteering at a Canadian NGO in northern Thailand. Thailand has social security schemes for migrant workers in the Workmen's Compensation Act (1994), the Social Security Act (1990) as well as the Social Security Fund. Their application for migrants, however, is extremely limited due to administrative and legal hurdles, and the complicated migrant legalization programmes. Such conditions make the migrants vulnerable, allowing the authorities to exploit the migrants' vulnerability and deportability, as discussed below.

State regulation and extortion

According to Coutin (1998: 59), ‘migrations do not just happen; they are produced. And migrations do not involve just any possible combination of countries; they are patterned’. This patterning is due in part to the global capitalist system that demands controllable and disposable cheap labour in geographically specific ways. As a mode of production with downward pressure on prices, the global economic model demands productive and competitive (read: exploitable) labour, which requires a lessening of adherence to the law and obligation to the workers' welfare. For this reason, the relationship between the economy and migrant regulation either at the national or global level is such that the regulatory regimes act on behalf of capitalist interests, according to narratives of migrant exploitation (Boucher, 2008: 1469). These narratives sit well with examples of labour exploitation worldwide (Sharma, 2006; Arnold & Pickles, 2011). Contributing to these narratives, my empirical study draws attention to the fact that state regulation is not simply to enable employers to exploit migrant labour; in addition, state and para-state agents are able to extract financial resources from the migrants. Such extraction can be referred to as ‘extortion’. The line between state regulation and the extortion it enables is very thin. The erratic and complex nature of state migrant regulation all but ensures that state and para-state actors will be able to further exploit them.

Legal extortion

One reason the ADB paper advocates regulating mobility is because undocumented migrants do not pay taxes. It claims that ‘The economic costs involved are also higher with irregular migrants because they do not contribute to the social system through income taxes’ (ADB, 2009a: 23). This claim is unimaginative at best, and wrong at worst, since migrants pay the government various fees as a result of the restrictive legalization policy under NV, plus various informal charges to police and local officials, as the following case studies illustrate.

Prior to NV under MoUs, Thailand had annual migrant registration beginning in 1992 (except 1994 and 1995). Given that Thailand is unable to count the exact number of ‘aliens’ in the country, migrant registration is aimed at tracking migrant workers. Annual registration costs migrant workers from a minimum 2500 THB (USD 80) to a maximum 7800 THB (USD 260) in 2006 (MMN, n.d.). Given that registration is individual and not household-based, every member of the family is required to spend that amount of money every time he/ she registers or renews registration. Although these registrations are supposed to guarantee minimum wages and rights to protection, migrants' experiences are different. Even more costly, perhaps, are the fees associated with the latest legalization scheme under the MoU. Each migrant is now required to bear fees for two different phases.

First, they need to have registered with the government for temporary stay, which costs 3800 THB (USD 130).3 The temporary stay fee is already very high for migrant workers whose monthly income is around 2000–3000 THB (USD 65–100) for farm workers, and 4000–6000 THB (USD 135–200) for domestic and construction workers. After spending most of their income on living expenses, the fees become a challenge, especially if a migrant has dependents including elderly parents and a pregnant wife.

This is not the only fee, however. Since migrants are tied to their (1) employer, (2) place of work, and (3) place of residence, they have to report any changes to respective offices by paying 1000 THB (about USD 35) for each change per person. In Chiang Mai city, for example, most migrant workers are in the construction sector and live next to the construction site. Once the building is finished in a few months, they move to another construction site. Most migrants do not officially update their place of residence unless their employers pay the fee or bribe the police. If the police come to check, workers may be charged from 500–2000 THB (USD 17–65), or even 5000 THB (USD 165).

Once temporary stay registration is completed, migrants are required to go through NV towards getting temporary passports and visas. Unlike temporary stay registration, NV has both political and financial constraints. Given that the vast majority of ethnic migrants (70.2 per cent out of 85 respondents) came to Thailand to escape state violence in Myanmar, submitting biographic data to the Myanmar government is politically challenging. Their fear is understandable, since the Myanmar government requests very detailed information, including that on parents, grandparents (both maternal and paternal sides), siblings, in-laws, spouse and his/her siblings, and their occupations and addresses. A migrant submitting this information fears endangering relatives in Myanmar.

According to interviews with Myanmar officials, the rationale for asking detailed information is to ensure that the applicants are ‘genuine’ Myanmar citizens, not anti-government activists and ethnic Rohingyas who are not recognized as citizens by the Myanmar government. Such information seeking creates a dilemma for migrants. On the one hand, they are required to go through the process; on the other hand, they fear that the information will be misused by local authorities in Myanmar.4 Many migrants, at least until late 2010, refused to go through NV on this assumption. To avoid risk to their families, many wrote inaccurate information on the forms. The result was a high rate of rejection. According to June 2010 data, about 24 300 workers in Chiang Mai applied for NV. Only about 4000 were approved, 10 000 were rejected and the other 10 000 were still waiting for approval. Due to encouragement from broker companies and migrant NGOs, more people started applying and providing accurate information by late 2010. At the end of April 2011, about 14 438 migrant workers in Chiang Mai (502 484 countrywide) had passed their NV (Hall, 2011).

Unlike the governments of Laos and Cambodia that set up passport offices on the Thai side of the border, the Myanmar government not only refused to set up offices in Thailand, but also required a centralized verification process.5 Applications have to be transported from Thailand to the Myanmar capital of Nay Pyi Daw. Once Nay Pyi Daw confirms the applicants' citizenship status, Thailand issues a temporary travel permit for migrants to cross the border into Myanmar to receive temporary passports (and a Thai visa). Given the complexity of this process, Thailand contracted 22 officially recognized private companies to provide application services. The official fees for NV are supposed to be 200 THB for a Myanmar passport and 500 THB for a two-year Thai visa. The companies in Chiang Mai, operated by government officials or their families, or those who have connections with the ministries, charge migrants from 4800–6500 THB (USD 160–215).

In short, migrants who have previously registered for temporary stay paying 3800 THB (USD 130) are required to spend another 4800–6500 THB (USD 160–215) for NV. Once they get a passport, they are required to get a two-year work permit (if their previously acquired work permit has expired or will expire soon), which costs them another 1900 THB (USD 65) depending on the type of work permit. In addition, expiry dates on passport, visa and work permit do not always synchronize with each other. Workers are required to extend the validity of different documents, which costs between 1900–3900 THB (USD 65–130).

Another proposed charge to migrants is 5 per cent of their income for social security benefits and 400 THB (USD 13) a month for six months to be used for deportation once their employment term expires. This is in line with article XI of the MoU that forces migrants to contribute 15 per cent of their monthly income to a savings fund. Due to NGO opposition, this proposal has been postponed.

All these charges add up to a multi-billion THB revenue for Thailand. In mid-2011, nearly one million migrants registered for temporary stay. This amounted to about 4 billion THB including health care charges (3800 THB multiplied by one million workers). This revenue is possible only when migrants agree to register with the government. This does not mean, however, that undocumented migrants do not contribute to revenue. Registering once does not mean being legal permanently, since migrants might decide not to register the following year. Zam, a 25-year-old migrant worker is one such example. Originally from southern Shan State, Zam works in Chiang Mai as a construction worker. His wife, 22, used to be a domestic worker, but now cleans at the apartment building she and Zam built as construction workers. Both of them have migrant registration papers and work permits, but the couple plans not to apply for NV because it would cost them two temporary registrations. If they finally decide not to go through NV, they might become ‘illegal’.6 If so, they might be paying informal taxes to police and local officials – just like non-registered migrants.

It would be a mistake though, to see migrant regulation as a single, systematic and coherent sets of practices and enforcement, dictated by the state. As Coutin argues, regulation of mobility involves ‘numerous practices, usually carried out by people who have no connection to the government, but... constitute[s] individuals as citizens, illegal migrants, legal residents, etc.’ (Coutin, 1993: 88). In Thailand, the issue of ‘illegal migrants’ was not apparent until the early 1990s when the Thai government decided to implement the ‘regular’ registration of undocumented migrants (Chalamwong, 2001: 12). Since then, there has been annual migrant regularization followed by thorny issues such as whether to deport unregistered migrants or keep them for employers who need them; strikes by the registered migrants for minimum wages; conflicts between registered migrants and employers who bribe the police to arrest them; and clashes between those who lobby the government for migrant registration, and racists and nationalists against migrants. These contradictions and struggles create a political stage on which policy makers speak of controlling migrants, academics discuss ‘problems’, the public expresses discomfort and the media covers ‘chaos’. Sooner or later, the migrants appear as dangerous and troublesome transgressors who need to be strictly controlled. In the same vein, local civil society groups, student organizations, media outlets and residents urge authorities to restrict migrant workers (Latt, 2008). And yet, the state apparatus continues to be most important in the arena of governance. The following section, however, takes a further analytical step in understanding the extension of regulation by investigating the role of para-state agents who engage in extra-legal financial exchanges with the migrants.

Semi-legal extortion

The illustration above depicts the official charges migrants endure as they enter legalization programmes. They are already paying unofficial fees for various programmes prior to entering the legalization programme. While the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labour issue worker IDs, local governments issue different types of documents to irregular migrants. For example, Ying, a Shan woman who arrived in Chiang Mai's Fang district in early 2010 enrolled in a village fund, initiated by the village head and local police officers. She paid 250 THB (USD 9) a month for protection from police arrest. In October 2010, however, she was arrested, since her receipt proving her fund membership was with her employer. She spent 4 days in a detention centre and 23 days in jail before her employer bailed her out for 1000 THB (USD 30). When asked why her employer did not help her right away, she said he did not need her labour at that time.

Another important document is the ‘10-Year Card’ (or bat sip pi), one of the various ‘hill tribe’ identity cards in Thailand. Bat sip pi, initially issued in the mid 2000s, is probably the newest kind of identity card for people in Thailand who do not have any identity card at all. In principle, this card is for those who have been living in Thailand before 1996. It allows cardholders to stay in the district where he/she is registered. Travelling outside the district requires permission from the district office. Unidentifiable numbers of migrant workers have somehow managed to acquire this ID mostly from small villages in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces. In my sample of 130 migrants, seven respondents are ‘hill tribe’ card holders, mostly bat sip pi (although the number could be higher because people hesitate to reveal cards acquired through backdoor channels) (Table 1).

Table 1. Migrants and registration status
Registration statusNumber of migrants
  1. Note: Migrant registration alone is not sufficient; they need a work permit to work in Thailand. Migrants must apply for a passport before a specific deadline. Missing any of these steps renders them ‘illegal’.
Hill tribe cards7
Migrant registration/Work permit/ Passport (Either or/ both)59
Not currently registered37
No answer from migrants17

Noam, a 23-year-old Shan woman whose family resides in a small village in Chiang Mai, received her 10-year card in 2007 after spending more than 20 000 THB (USD 660). Since she works in Chiang Mai City, she needs travel permission from the district office. She renews her travel permission every six months. Each renewal costs her 700 THB (USD 25) for typing fees, according to officials. Noam explains the complicated fees and process regarding travel permit renewal:

150 THB for a photo – even when we said we already have photos, they take photo again and take money from us. Another 100 THB is for registration. Once I arrive in Chiang Mai, I need the Chiang Mai district officer's signature to prove that I live in Chiang Mai. It costs 20 THB. If there is no signature from Chiang Mai district official, the police (including the ones stationed on highways) can charge 200 THB. If I need to change information on my travel document or my card, I need to pay again. Since there are many migrants for this thing, you can jump the queue if you pay 3000 THB (USD 100). Since many migrants cannot wait for days or weeks, they pay 3000 THB (interview, 24 July 2011).

Her card and travel document are good for ‘stay’ only. If she is to work, she needs a work permit from the Chiang Mai employment office, which will cost her 3800 THB (USD 130). Noam does not have a work permit, but she works at a community organization for 6000 THB (USD 200) a month, and sometimes works at a restaurant in the evening. If she is found working in Chiang Mai, she could be arrested.

Noam was in trouble with her card back in the village in early 2011; the district office cancelled about 15 000 registrations out of 20 000. Her card was recovered after her mother paid local officials 3500 THB (USD 120). She can apply for a six-month travel paper, but she is uncertain whether her card is still valid or the travel paper is temporary.7 According to Noam, this cancelling plan was to generate more money by local officials:

Officials from the district office said the police are not happy because they did not get their share. So, the officers said people can re-register as new applicants if their previous cards were cancelled (interview, 26 August 2011).

In September 2011, she accompanied our group of travellers to Mae Hong Son. She obtained a one-month travel document, which identified Mae Hong Son as the permitted destination. She spent 400 THB (USD 15) for the document, which was twice the cost of her VIP minivan ticket from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son.

Illegal extortion

In Thailand, migrant workers commonly fear that police officers will detain them for money. In my sample, 33 respondents (out of 60) noted that they had encounters with police who either arrested or fined them for riding a motorbike without a license or helmets (19 persons), or not having migrant documents (14 persons).

In Fang district there are two major police crackdowns on migrants every year: one before New Year and another before Songkram Water Festival (Buddhist new year). Usually, there is no fixed operation except when informers or local residents call the police (interview, police official, 6 March 2011). Many arrests are by corrupt officers to profit through the backdoor. In a consultation meeting between government officials and migrant NGOs held in Chiang Mai in June 2011, a question was raised over police officers raiding the same construction site 30 times (Consultation meeting, 2011).

Apart from arbitrary raiding of migrant homes and worksites, the restrictive migrant policies create conditions in which migrants are vulnerable to extortion by corrupt police officers. Given that migrant workers cannot register with the government without an employer to sign the application, daily labourers, who do have not have a permanent employer, ‘hire’ nominal employers. They pay varying amounts of money (about 1000 THB or USD 30) to these nominal employers to use their names for registration. These migrants are vulnerable to police arrest since they may be caught working for employers who are different from those on their documents. Kham, a Shan woman in her thirties, works at a karaoke bar in a Shan shantytown area behind Chiang Mai's Tesco Lotus shopping mall. One evening, a police officer followed Kham on her way back from the bar after midnight. He stopped her at a corner near the road towards Nawarat Bridge. Since she is registered as a domestic worker, her employment at the karaoke bar is ‘illegal’. Afraid of the police, she admitted that she worked at the bar (instead of lying that she was just visiting). She was forced to pay 1000 THB (USD 30) but she had about 200 THB (USD 7) in her purse. The policeman took all 200 THB.

Mooe's experience with the police is even more telling. Mooe is a 45-year-old construction worker and father of two. He has been in Thailand since the early 2000s. Up to May 2011, he had been arrested about 20 times by the traffic police, as migrants without passports are not qualified for a driver's license. He estimates that he has given about 20 000 THB (USD 660) to the officers including the same officer who always checked his license knowing that he did not have one.

A police officer arrested me every time he saw me at the traffic light (Huay Kaew and Super Highway Intersection). He knew I didn't have a driver's license. So he always arrested me. … I asked him ‘Why do you always arrest me? Please have mercy on me because I have a family. I have paid lots of money to you already. Where can I get more money?’ When I paid him 350 THB [as opposed to 1000 THB], he said ‘mai dai’ [meaning not profiting]. So, I asked him, ‘What do you mean by “mai dai” since you didn't invest any money to arrest me?’ (interview, 20 August 2011)

Mooe received his driver's license in May 2011 for 650 THB (USD 20). Still, he ends up having to pay fines. One evening, he was fined 200 THB for not carrying a motorbike license (not his driver's license) with him. Mooe's fines were not that bad compared to other migrants who are charged 1000 THB (USD 30) for not wearing a helmet, whereas Thai ID holders are charged 200 THB (USD 6–7) for the same offense. Although the agency of migrants is beyond the scope of this paper, it should be mentioned that migrants are not totally passive victims. While they are subject to extortion and exploitation, they exercise their agency by avoiding roads and intersections where police officers are likely to stop them.


This paper draws attention to a little studied aspect of migrant regulation by showing that extra-legal financial exchanges between state/para-state agents and quasi-legal migrants constitute an important part of what migrants experience as the regulatory process. In Thailand, migrants spend money for migrant registration in various steps. In addition, they are required to spend money for semi-legal registration programmes and to corrupt officials who exploit the migrants' ‘deportability’. Such interactions between authorities and migrants are the everyday state-migrant relations, which deplete migrants' financial resources. This results in keeping migrants poor and forcing them to bear low wages and poor working conditions.

Ethnic migrants' life stories unsettle the ADB claims that irregular migrants do not contribute to the social system through paying taxes. It is true that they do not pay ‘income taxes’, but they have been contributing to a local revenue circus in various ways, in addition to providing cheap labour. Their experiences raise the question of the ADB role in protecting regional migrants. The role of the ADB is, in fact, not taking any role at all beyond encouraging the nationalization of regulation. Claiming that unregulated migration is increasingly causing political and economic costs, the ADB supports regulation in principle without preventing state forces from exerting extortion and violence. The Bank is more concerned with regulating mobility than addressing inhumane and restrictive national control of cross-border populations. Moreover, the ADB's support for restrictive national policies means that the Bank's romantic ‘community’ turns out to be a nightmare for the vast majority of vulnerable migrants. The kind of nationalized regulation that the ADB supports not only reinforces the migrants' national citizenship (i.e. neither Thai nor GMS citizens), but also allows national governments to sustain a legalization process and related informal arrangements that are violent and exploitative.

It would be unfair, though, to single out the Bank for the problem. As the ADB is an intergovernmental organization, it is challenged by the structural relations and political preferences of member states. It has to ensure that the GMS member countries continue to participate in activities, and that Bank officials avoid issues that are politically and legally sensitive to the member states. Migration, particularly cross-border and undocumented labour migration, is one such issue. The Bank ends up focusing on human trafficking and disease control, issues that all countries can agree on, while avoiding intervention in how governments deal with migrant workers within their sovereign territories. The eventual outcome is that cross-border migrants are the most invisible, vulnerable and exploitable members of the GMS in their role as ‘deportable labour’ in a global capitalist economy.


I thank all research participants in Thailand and Myanmar, and ADB officials. I thank Pao Hom, Sai Moe and Sai Su for helping me with interviews and interpretation. I also thank Sai Soe for providing me with necessary contacts and information on migrant affairs. Thanks to the Regional Center for Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University for providing me with research facilities. This research is funded by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).


  1. 1

    The GMS was formed in 1992 at the initiative of the Asian Development Bank. It comprises Mekong riparian countries: Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Yunnan and Guangxi of China. It is an economic integration focusing on resource sharing and physical connectivity through infrastructure projects (see ADB, 2005).

  2. 2

    The webpage was accessed on 28 August 2011. It was modified by December 2011. The screenshot of the original page is in my possession.

  3. 3

    USD 1 = 29 THB (30 November 2011).

  4. 4

    Exiled media based in Thailand contribute to this assumption. Migrant NGOs that support nationality verification charge Burmese exile activists and media for using nationality verification as a tool to oppose the Burmese government.

  5. 5

    The Myanmar government decided to open offices in Thailand in 2012 as a result of rapid domestic political change.

  6. 6

    This is a common trend in Thailand since sets of data show decreasingly numbers of registered migrants each year (see MMN, n.d.).

  7. 7

    A similar incident happened in 2008 when local villagers complained to the district office that outsiders received cards by bribing officials while local people were ignored.