People wait for coronavirus tests in Samut Sakhon.
People wait for coronavirus tests in Samut Sakhon.

Thailand is administering up to a million doses of coronavirus vaccine a day, but migrant workers from neighboring countries, the life blood that keeps the country running, are mostly being left out. That needs to change, rights advocates and community leaders say.

Although Thai authorities have administered nearly 60 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines in a country of some 70 million citizens since the launch of a rollout in early June, the vast majority of migrant workers – especially those working illegally in Thailand – have yet to receive any inoculation against the potentially deadly disease.

The only exceptions are migrants caught in the middle of a Covid-19 maelstrom, such as the one that struck fresh markets and seafood-processing plants in Samut Sakon early this year. Concentrated outbreaks at markets in Bangkok, Chonburi and elsewhere also have seen migrants vaccinated with Thais.

But everyday, routine vaccinations at centers and hospitals? Not happening.

“Some foreigners do not hold legal documents but they have lived in Thailand for years. Though some call Thailand home, without legal status they are afraid to ask for help or fight for their right to receive Covid-19 vaccines and treatments,” one Thai newspaper editorialized Oct. 9.

“[The government’s] vaccination plan ignored this particular group simply because of their problematic legal status — most undocumented migrant workers were smuggled into the country. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic is an exceptional case that requires legal flexibility.”

That editorial is only the latest in a series of such calls by organizations including prominent rights groups.

Back in July, during the height of the current third wave of Covid-19 in Thailand, Amnesty International urged Thailand’s government to make sure that migrant workers would also have easy access to inoculation regardless of their legal status.

“The current distribution plan reveals systemic discrimination towards marginalized groups such as prisoners, undocumented migrant workers, refugees, those living in poverty and homeless people. These groups struggle to access healthcare services, are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and are also at a greater risk of dying from the disease,” the rights group said.

“Thai authorities must urgently revise its national plan to ensure a vaccination process that is non-discriminatory, fair and accessible to all.”

Migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos make up the bulk of workers in labor-intensive industries in Thailand such as fishing, food processing and construction. Because many are undocumented, they often avoid seeking any help from officials for fear of being detained and deported.

However, even migrants staying legally in Thailand often have a hard time gaining access to medical care and other government services, experts say.

Officially, around 2.35 million migrants have work permits for employment, but the actual number could be double that figure, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations-affiliated organization.

Regardless of their legal status, most migrant workers have yet to receive even their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

As a result, the Thai Red Cross Society launched a vaccination campaign last week for migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, and the charity seeks to inoculate 5,000 underprivileged migrants by the end of this month.

Experts say the mass vaccination of migrants is a must not only for humanitarian but also for health reasons because most migrants live in overcrowded camps or dormitories with poor hygiene where Covid-19 can spread fast.

“The more migrant workers we are able to vaccinate, the better for the Thai people too,” stressed Tej Bunnag, secretary-general of the Thai Red Cross Society.

Many migrants in Thailand are desperate to get access to vaccination.

“We are so happy that we will be safe now. We all came in a big group because we are afraid to die,” a 35-year-old migrant was quoted as saying after receiving his first dose last week from the Thai Red Cross Society, along with some 300 others who were vaccinated the same day.

“Finally, there’s someone who’s lending us help,” he added.

The original version of this story appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.