Two trucks with cages crammed with Burmese migrant workers halt abruptly beside the Thai-Burmese frontier’s river landing stage. Detainees, standing and sitting, are pressed hard against one another and the wire mesh that is their temporary prison.
The deportees appear resigned to their fate. When the doors fly open, 140 men and a lone woman file out and down steep steps on the Thai side of the border to a waiting barge. No guards are needed. Fifteen metres across the muddy, fast-flowing Moei River they are back in their native Burma.
Uniformed men herd them into a bamboo stockade of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a rebel splinter group that has made peace with the Burmese junta. To win their liberty back in their homeland, each must pay the equivalent of Â£25, a vast sum for impoverished labourers.
Each year up to 100Â 000 deported migrants pass back this way. Social workers believe the DKBA is in league with corrupt Thai immigration staff who get a cut of the profits from these unofficial deportations.
Burmese people-trafficking preys on the most desperate of people, fleeing conflict and poverty. It is a small part of a vast, murky trade that buoys the Thai economy. At least 1,5-million Burmese work in Thai construction, fisheries and agriculture, filling poorly paid jobs shunned by Thais. Just a third are legally registered, leaving a million vulnerable to raids, deportation and extortion.
In a safehouse in Mae Sot, a Thai border town awash with Burmese migrants, Moe Swe shelters those rescued from the DKBA’s clutches and others who fled abusive employers. It is a perilous business. He briefly fled Thailand himself two years ago, after receiving death threats from powerful vested interests.
“We suspect the Thai officials get money from the DKBA for the deported migrants,” he said. “There are 20 landing stages on the river, but the workers are only released at the one known as Pier 999, opposite the DKBA’s so-called reception centre.”
Two hundred garment factories and thousands of farms in Mae Sot thrive on cheap labour that floods across the porous border. Some of the 100Â 000 migrants here have work permits, but many do not. A squad of armed Thai border police last week staged a 4am raid 32km outside the town in Waylay village, a collection of bamboo shacks without running water or electricity. Half the 100 inhabitants, without work permits, ran. Four were caught and immediately deported.
Wai Lin Oo (18) heard no warning. It was a costly mistake. His mother Khin Thet (40) rescued him by slipping across into Burma herself, but had to pay nearly Â£10 from the family’s meagre savings for a day-pass to bring him back.
With other villagers, he scrapes a living planting roses, earning Â£1 a day — half the minimum wage. Yet he is luckier than 11-year-old Win Htat Thu who gets work erratically laying chemical fertiliser around the roses without any protective clothing.
“We came because we hadn’t enough money,” said the boy, who receives no schooling. “But here there’s not enough either; just enough food.”
Bangkok’s building sites and factories are the most lucrative workplaces. Although migrants there are paid as little as their rural cousins, the work is steadier, giving greater opportunity to earn. But getting a work permit is difficult. Just 485Â 925 are registered, leaving a million Burmese working illegally. Hundreds are caught in daily swoops and held in Bangkok’s immigration detention centre before being taken to Mae Sot, fuelling the corrupt trade in deportations from Pier 999 — whose suspicious operators did not welcome prying eyes.
“No pictures,” hissed one, as we watched the caged trucks arrive and unload their human cargo, the fifth and sixth shipments of the morning. “Who are they and what do they want?” whispered another to the Burmese social worker accompanying us, who has seen the trade at first hand.
A month ago the plight of Kyaw Pha Dae (15) led the social worker to the DKBA camp to buy his freedom. Capture could have cost her years in jail. She found him in the Bangkok detention centre and followed him when he was deported.
Kyaw Pha Dae last saw his family a year ago after he was sent to work on a Thai fishing boat in the Andaman Sea. The boy, from the Karen village of Kyat Ma Out, had never seen the sea.
“When I went on the boat I was scared that I would fall overboard,” he said, now in the Mae Sot safehouse. “I got seasick too. But I was really afraid after the boat owner dropped me on a pier in Bangkok. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”
The flow of Burmese migrants across the lengthy border that cuts through jungle-clad mountains is just one part of the equation. It is mirrored by huge business investments that wealthy Thais have made in Burma.
One fly in the ointment is the drug yaba — a meta-amphetamine — produced in Burmese jungle laboratories and smuggled in vast quantities into Thailand. But the desire for the smooth running of big business ensures tensions never get too strained.
The ousted Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself had vast business interests in Burma, invested much political capital trying to bring Burma’s rulers into the international fold. But despite his failure, the interlinked business interests keep relations stable and border tensions — on an official level, at least — to a minimum. — Â