BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has stopped providing medical assistance in Thailand to thousands of unregistered migrants and refugees, and will shut the rest of its operations there by the end of the year.
“The decision to close the mission in Thailand is mostly based on administrative blockages that we have faced to provide healthcare to vulnerable populations,” Denis Penoy, MSF’s head of mission in Thailand, told AlertNet.
“Despite numerous negotiations with the authorities, we have not been authorised to provide healthcare to migrants and marginalised populations the way we consider it to be best,” he added, declining to elaborate further.
In June, the Thai authorities forcibly shut down MSF clinics in two locations where the medical aid group had been providing ante-natal and primary healthcare, affecting up to 55,000 migrant workers, mainly from impoverished Myanmar.
MSF had set up clinics in Samut Sakhon, on the outskirts of the capital Bangkok, and at Three Pagoda Pass near the Thai-Myanmar border. Both places are home to huge populations of illegal migrant workers who have no access to healthcare in Thailand.
No other aid agencies will be taking over the projects. MSF has been working in Thailand since 1975 and has around 70 staff there.
MSF’s Thai mission has also stopped giving direct medical assistance in refugee camps along the border, although it is still providing drugs and technical advice. Some 140,000 Myanmar refugees live in these camps, relying heavily on international aid.
Earlier media reports had said the planned withdrawal was due to funding issues and the need to shift resources to emergencies in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, citing a leaked letter from MSF’s Bangkok office.
Penoy told AlertNet this is not the main reason for the closure, even though MSF’s resources are not unlimited.
“The decision to open or close a project is based on the needs and the existing response from other organisations, from authorities and also from the added value that we can have in this situation,” he said.
Data collected by MSF shows that the health of unregistered workers is worse than that of many other population groups, Penoy said. This is partly because, due to their illegal status, they often wait until an illness is really bad before they dare to visit a health facility, he noted.
Thai authorities have been working to register illegal migrant workers through a nationality verification process in which they become legal and are entitled to health benefits through social security.
Under the scheme, they have to contribute 5 percent of their salary to the Social Security Fund, which rights groups say is a significant amount for many.
So far only around half a million migrant workers from Myanmar have registered, according to media reports.
Estimates of the number of migrant workers in Thailand vary from 2 to 3 million, with the majority coming from neighbouring Myanmar.
"I think the Thai government has a real concern about the migrants. They have an official policy to register these migrants so you can’t say the Thai government didn’t do anything for these people,” Penoy said.
"But you still have between 1.5 million and 2 million undocumented migrants in Thailand who are deprived of access to healthcare, so only a fraction of the needs are covered at the moment."
(Editing by Megan Rowling)