Migration Governance in Thailand: building local databases on returnee migrants to support policy actions

Sopon Naruchaikusol, RAKS Thai



Thailand has long experience of sending migrants overseas since the 1970s, particularly to the Middle East, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia (Paitoonpong S. and Chalamwong Y., 2012). In 2007, the number of Thai overseas migrants rose to 161,917 migrants, but had declined to 58,826 migrants in 2019 due to greater economic development and more job opportunities opening up within Thailand. Remittances increased from 100,480 million THB to 192,903 million THB in 2014 and 2019, respectively (Department of Employment, 2020). At the same time, migration destinations have shifted to Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Israel, which are the destinations most favored under bi-lateral agreement signed by the Ministry of Labour.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of labour has limited information on Thai overseas migration (including only providing data on documented migration – migration destinations, remittances, job types, and sending locations). It does not cover information on the skills and knowledge of migrants/returnees. This issue was raised in a discussion at the AGRUMIG national policy dialogue held in Bangkok in October 2019. The AGRUMIG project ‘leaving something behind’– Migration governance and agricultural & rural change in ‘home’ communities: Comparative experience from Europe, Asia and Africa’ in Thailand focused on “sending communities” and especially social remittances and rural and agrarian development.


From Discussions to Actions

Key insights from the policy dialogue provided potential pathways towards enhancing migration governance in Thailand. This included filling current gaps and needs through establishing a returnees’ database by which to map the skills and knowledge of returnees, as well as identify the best practices of migrants. On this point, a Department of Employment (DOE) participant stated that there was a need to establish such a migration database, but with “limited staff and capacities to implement the database development initiative,” the DOE remained constrained.

One key challenge is that migrants do not report themselves to DOE at the labour control checkpoint at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport when they return to Thailand after finishing job contracts in destination countries. This lack of reporting resulted in no official record of the number of returnees and no regulations to support returnees after returning to the country (Ayuwat, 2019). The AGRUMIG project followed these pointers in order to work with local governments at provincial and sub-district (Tambon) levels by forming local working groups/COPs in Chiangmai and Udonthani. Through these COPs, provinces can move forward with the initiative towards establishing a returnees’ database (including information on the country of destinations, type of jobs, work experiences, and knowledge and skills gained from migration), and thereby help returnees connect with existing development programs across different government departments. “We also need a good practice/demonstration of the migration database development from a local level as a trigger point to encourage policy change at the national level”, a DOE representative stated at the dialogue.


Actions at all levels

The AGRUMIG Thai research team took the initiative on database development to demonstrate how a returnee database could be established locally using a bottom-up approach. Since decentralisation in 1997, the structure of local government in Thailand has comprised a dual system of local administration lines. The old structure was led by Kamnan (Tambon head) and village heads under the Local Government Act, 1914; whereas the new structure was led by Provincial Administrative Organisations (PAO) and Tambon Administrative Organisations (TAO) under the Municipalities Act, 1953, the Sub-district Councils and Subdistrict Administrative Organisations Act, 1995, and the Provincial Administrative Organisations Act, 1997. Working with the provincial government offices in Udonthani province the AGRUMIG team is developing the returnee database through returnee phone interviews, returnee workshops with related government agencies, and enhancing the migration context in local development plans.

Specifically, the project works with Mae Suek TAO in Mae Chaem district, Chiangmai province, through implementing a joint migration survey in selected communities. The migration data has been integrated into the Mae Suek GIS portal helping the district to understand spatial development challenges in the sub-district. This area is located in a protected reserve where land rights and land use are of major concern. The spatial map helps observe changes in land use and supports endorsing community rights on communal and agricultural land. In addition, the land use and migration data in the portal can support area development planning,  for example, by promoting and enhancing local ecotourism. The migration survey and database also help to indicate that many migrants have skills and experiences in the tourism sector (e.g., tour guides, elephant husbandry, hotel staff, etc.), which fits with the sub-district administrative organisation’s development strategy for promoting and developing eco-tourism facilities in the area. “The migration database will support our development planning and activities in identifying our human resources, skills, and potential network,” a Former Mae Suek TAO head stated.


Linking Lessons Learned from Practices at the Local to National Levels

The ultimate aim of implementing the AGRUMIG project with local COPs is to encourage bottom-up lesson learning and practical development implemented at either sub-district or provincial levels. Experience can then be shared with related government agencies at the national level, which can enhance and support future migration governance policy in Thailand. The best practices from the project can also expand to other local government authorities and assist in extending their respective development activities.



Ayuwat D. 2019. “The Isan Migrants on the Move” Situations and Impacts. Department of Humanity and Social Sciences, Khon Kaen University.

Department of Employment. 2020. Remittances of Thai Labour Migrants Sending Through Bank of Thailand 2015 – 2020. Ministry of Labour. Available at:  https://www.doe.go.th/prd/overseas/statistic/param/site/149/cat/81/sub/69/pull/sub_category/view/list-label

Paitoonpong S. and Chalamwong Y. 2012. Managing International Labor Migration in ASEAN: A Case of Thailand. Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Available at:  ttps://tdri.or.th/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/h117.pdf


Udonthani Provincial Labour Office’s Newsletter shows the Local COP meeting to design the returnees database and the possibility of connecting returnees to participate in existing development programs supporting rural development.

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