For the approximately three million people from Myanmar in Thailand now, the main narrative on migration is essentially binary. The argument generally goes that one is either a labourer or one is a refugee. In terms of causation, the former is enticed to move for “voluntary” reasons of economic want, while the latter is propelled for “forced” reasons of political exigency.
This is, perhaps, something of a simplification of the research of others, but the deeper one delves into the literature of at least three specific areas or disciplines of study—contemporary migration policy analysis, international refugee and labour law, and any humanitarian or NGO-type study—the more one realises that this refugee-vs-labourer binary is the essential theoretical framework for analysis. I worry that this is more of a trope than something backed by on-the-ground evidence.
Last year Adam Saltsman made an argument in The Diplomat that too much of a differentiation between refugees and labourers may actually do harm to those who analysts and scholars may wish to help, now that so many of the once “refugees” have already entered the labour pool in Thailand. He argues that “advocacy for refugees must be linked with advocacy for migrants and for labour rights” in order to come to any “durable solutions.”
My own forays into the study of the Burmese in Thailand have also generated qualitative as well as quantitative evidence to argue against this simple binary. This needs to be analysed more fully…[click here to continue to read full text]