BANGKOK, Feb. 19 (IPS) -- Many Thai migrant workers look forward to coming home after years of hard lives overseas, but not everyone finds a happy ending.
"I came home and found that what I must face here is not any easier than what I faced in a foreign country," said 43-year-old Duangchan Yasri, who was an undocumented migrant worker in Japan for five years. She left Thailand when she was 15.
"I remember often picturing myself coming back home as a heroine who worked hard to support the family," she recalled. "That was true but only for a short while."
"Everybody loved me when I first returned with a lot of money," she said. "Relatives and friends usually visited me, and I treated them with food and drinks. Many came asking for financial help, which it seemed I was not allowed to reject."
"One way or another, returnees usually struggle with what awaits them at home," said researcher Kannika Angsuthanasombat of the Asian Research Centre for Migration at Chulalongkorn University here.
Many return with no personal savings. Others who have money usually do not know how to invest it carefully. Many more have to face broken families, or have become strangers to their children.
It took Duangchan many years before she could stand on her own feet again.
Last year, she joined the non-government group Self Empowerment Programme of Migrant Women (SEPOM), based in the northern city of Chiang Rai. It helps women returnees cope with financial woes, re-adjust to home, gives them psychological and legal counselling, job training and helps run a savings group for women.
Figures from Overseas Employment Administration Office show there were 4,701 legal Thai migrant workers in Japan in 2002, but the real figure is many times that. According to the Immigration Bureau in Japan, 64,246 Thais entered the country in 1999, of which 23,503 were said to be there illegally.
Many Thai women, like other Asian workers like the Filipinos, end up in Japan's adult entertainment industry, which has been estimated at grossing almost $83 billion a year. As with many others before her and after her, money was the key factor that drove Duangchan to Japan. When she left Thailand in 1975, she thought she was going work as a waitress, as the job broker promised her.
According to a Human Rights Watch report in 2000, among the Thai women trafficked to Japan, many are forced to work long hours seven days a week, without days off for rest or, in some cases, even for illness, so they can pay huge debts to the brokers who brought them to the country.
Many were beaten by their brokers or employees for failing to please clients.
Experts and social workers in Japan pointed out that most of more than 100,000 undocumented female workers there were in the sex industry and faced appalling work conditions.
At a January seminar on trafficking in Tokyo, Thai embassy officials said that two to three Thai women seek refuge at the embassy each week to escape cruel and degrading working conditions, bondage or forced sexual work.
Duangchan actually thought she had done pretty well in Japan, after she met a Japanese man, married him and later had a daughter, now 13, with him. She returned to Thailand to try to get Thai citizenship for her daughter and to go back with legal papers. But a few months after coming home, most of her savings were gone. The papers she needed took much longer to process, and gradually she and her husband lost touch.
"It was very difficult for me trying to look for a job," said Duangchan. "The factories only want young women with at least secondary school certified. Others are not willing to waste time training new staff without any experience, like me."
Meanwhile, Duangchan ran up debts to work on her daughter's papers, with little success until now. But many still think it is impossible for her not to have more money. She said: "I think of it also as my fault that I didn't tell my family earlier how much I suffered in Japan. In the letters I wrote home, I usually told them that I was okay. When I now tell them the truth, they think it is only my excuse for not able to make any more money for them."
Socially, too, Duangchan has had to pay a price. She has since remarried and has three children with him, but "his family is not happy with me who they see as a bad woman who use to work as a sex worker".
But despite the sad tales of working overseas, she said that in many villages, at least one daughter of every family is expected to go work abroad.
"My family often picks on me, asking why I can't make as much money as the daughters of other families. But no matter how much we make, it has never been enough for them," she pointed out.
Some of those who are not able to cope with the situation often turn to alcohol and drugs. "I thought of committing suicide many times, but thinking about my children was the only thing that pulled me back," added Duangchan.
Kannika advises those who work abroad to set clear goals -- how much to earn, how to spend and save money, and how to use it efficiently when they return home. But adjustment is crucial not only for the overseas worker.
"The family too needs to adjust to the new person that migrants have become," Deep Ranjani Rai of the Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women said.
"They must bear not only with the fact that migrants are coming back home with money, but also the fact that they might come back with no money," she said. "It also means they might be coming back with a disease, or even dead. How does the family deal with that? It could also mean that that is the one person of the family they are probably relying on."
Mused Duangchan: "No matter how much is money offered to me today, I will not go work abroad again. If I could turn back the time, I would never have left home."
- 116 Human Rights