Half of Thailand’s health budget provides care for migrants

Nearly half of the national health budget has been spent so far this year providing medical care to foreign migrants in 31 border provinces, the Ministry of Public Health said last week, underscoring the improved access to public services resulting from the government’s program to register migrants.

There are an estimated two million foreign migrants in Thailand, most from neighboring countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia. For many years they lived and worked in the shadows without legal protections or access to essential services such as health care and education. But since 2014, the government has embarked on a program to register all migrant workers and has succeeded in documenting over 1.4 million of them.

Documented migrant workers can get medical care and treatment in Thailand’s public hospitals, and can change jobs or file grievances against any unscrupulous or abusive employer without fear of being prosecuted of deported for illegal entry. In addition, documenting migrants is an important tool to fight human trafficking.

Dr. Pisit Sriprasert, a regional health inspector general, said almost half of the ministry’s $68 million budget had been spent on care and treatment for foreign migrants. In the five border provinces that he oversees, the Thai health system provided services for 213,130 foreign migrants – of whom 102,531 were migrant workers, and 34,192 people who were born in Thailand but had not obtained Thai nationality.

Thailand has also embarked on a campaign to provide citizenship to the stateless people living within its borders and has been praised by the United Nations for its efforts in this regard.

While the cost of medical care for migrants is straining the budget, health officials say, providing care and treatment is both compassionate and good public health policy. It not only benefits and protects the migrants but the entire Thai population as well.

Detection and treatment of communicable diseases migrants may have contracted, such as tuberculosis, will prevent those diseases from spreading to the wider population and perhaps evolving into an epidemic. By spending money on treating migrants, costs are saved in the long run because fewer people in the larger population will fall ill.

In addition, migrants who do not receive proper care may misuse antibiotics or other medications. A possible side effect of that would be increasing drug resistance, and when diseases become resistant to existing medicines then everyone is at greater risk as they spread more easily and become untreatable.