By Lan Anh Nguyen
BANGKOK, Sep 28 (NewsMekong) - Behind the iron bars of the Bangkok Immigration Bureau's detention centre, where they are waiting to return to their home countries, hundreds of foreign nationals scramble to get some air in crowded and suffocating jails.
They come from all over the world, but most notably Asia and Africa. Some of them might have committed criminal acts in Thailand or elsewhere, but most of them are simply poorer people seeking work and a better life. Among the foreigners who either entered or stayed in Thailand illegally are workers from rural provinces in the central Vietnam.
According to the Royal Thai Police's Immigration Bureau, the number of illegal workers from Vietnam who have come to Thailand has jumped tremendously, although accurate estimates are hard to come by. This new wave of Vietnamese immigrants have come to Thailand either by air as tourists, or have crossed land borders after coming through neighbouring Laos.
In 2004, Thai Immigration Police reported arresting 65 undocumented Vietnamese immigrants. The number jumped to 489 people in 2005, and by September 2006, the Immigration Bureau's detention centre in Bangkok had detained more than 900 Vietnamese.
Pol Col Bundit Tungasreni, superintendent of the Investigative unit, said there are likely to be much more undocumented migrants, and that the ones in the detention centre are only those caught in the police's random raids. "We believe there are many illegal workers in Thailand," Bundit said during an interview. "But it's not easy to spot them… .We normally get tips from Thai people about illegal foreign workers here."
A visa agreement that allows Thai and Vietnamese citizens to enter each other's countries without an entry visa for a 30-day stay, which took effect two years ago, might have contributed to the dramatic increase of undocumented immigrants from Vietnam. For example, more than two-thirds of the total undocumented foreigners from Vietnam in 2006 are those who entered legally with an entry stamp but then overstayed in Thailand, working in labour-intensive jobs and jobs that local Thais are not keen to take.
Most undocumented workers are imprisoned in the overcrowded jails at the Immigration Bureau before getting deported back to their home country. Many have to stay for months in the hot, smelly jails because they do not have money to buy airplane tickets.
Nguyen Thi Hue, a 23-year-old woman from Nghe An province in central Vietnam, arrived in Thailand seven months ago on a tourist visa. Until being caught by Thai police recently, she was working as a waitress in a restaurant in Bangkok, saving money to send back home.
The Vietnamese Embassy in Thailand helped contact her family in Vietnam after she was picked up. But because her family does not have enough money to buy her a ticket home, Hue is now counting on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other non-governmental organisations for a ticket to return to Vietnam. She might have to wait three to six months.
"Our life here is hard," Hue said, speaking through the cell bars. "We miss home, we miss Vietnamese food a lot. Our poor circumstances forced us to come here."
Most Vietnamese workers come from the poorest rural provinces in the north and central areas, where there are almost no jobs but farming. Around two-thirds of the Vietnamese prisoners at the Immigration Bureau's detention centre are men, mostly in their 20s and 30s.
Men are put in separate rooms, where the only daily 'entertainment' is a 30-minute outdoor period when they can see the sky in a small yard behind the detention centre. Most Vietnamese workers said they came to Thailand through organised trips across Laos' borders. Young, uneducated farmers who are unable to speak Thai or English, they were sold to Thai employers in order to work as construction workers, carpenters, or waiters.
"I earned some 8,000 baht (nearly 200 U.S. dollars) a month," said Sinh én H