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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Stay in Israel, or flee? Thai workers caught up in Hamas attack and war are faced with a dilemma
BANGKOK: When Hamas militants stormed into Israeli villages and towns along the border of the blockaded Gaza Strip last month, many Thai migrant agricultural workers shared the fate of hundreds of Israelis who were killed, kidnapped or forced to run for their lives.
Since that day nearly a month ago, more than 7,000 of some 30,000 Thais working in Israel have returned home on government evacuation flights. But many others have decided to stay, choosing to take the risk for the opportunity to earn wages far higher than at home.
Thailand reports that at least 23 Thais are believed to have been abducted by Hamas, which rules Gaza. It’s the largest single group of foreigners held by the militant group. Many more may be missing and 32 have been reported killed.
In a visceral illustration of the fate met by some, Israel’s UN envoy drew a rebuke from Thailand’s Foreign Ministry after showing the General Assembly a video last week of what he said was a Hamas fighter decapitating a Thai agricultural worker with a garden hoe as he lay on the ground.
“Such horrific brutality has stirred a sense of outrage not only among Thais, but undoubtedly people throughout the world,” the ministry said, criticizing the decision to show it as disrespectful to the victim and his family.
‘Please help my son stay safe’
Like many other Thai agricultural laborers in Israel, Natthaporn Onkeaw had been his family’s main breadwinner, sending money home regularly after going to Israel to work on a kibbutz in 2021.
The 26-year-old was among those abducted by Hamas, said his mother, 47-year-old Thongkun Onkeaw, who lives in a poor rural area in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos.
He was one of the few Thai captives pictured in a photo released by Hamas whose names were later confirmed by the Thai Labor Ministry. His mother said she had not heard from him since he was taken, and no officials have given her or her husband any updates.
“I can only pray: Please help my son stay safe,” she told The Associated Press.
Thai media has followed developments in the conflict closely, with regular reports on the plights of the workers who have fled or chosen to stay, as well as what little is known about the hostages.
A video of one man, who was purported to be a Thai migrant worker being dragged away in a chokehold by a militant, has been widely circulated on social media. Identified as 26-year-old Kong Saleo by his wife, Suntree Saelee, he was allegedly taken from an avocado orchard when Hamas militants raided the worker’s camp.
“When I saw the picture and the clip, I knew it was him,” Suntree was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post. “I am concerned for his safety. Please help him.”
Thai workers looking for higher wages
Farm laborers from Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia seek work in more developed countries where there is a shortage of semi-skilled labor — at wages considerably higher than what they earn at home.
Israel started bringing in migrant workers in earnest after the first Intifada, the 1987-93 Palestinian revolt, after employers began to lose trust in Palestinian workers.
Most came from Thailand, and they remain the largest group of foreign agricultural laborers in Israel today. The countries implemented a bilateral agreement a decade ago specifically easing the way for Thai agricultural workers. Many Palestinian workers had since returned, and before the Hamas attack about half of Israel’s workforce was made up of foreign and Palestinian laborers.
In recent years, Israel has come under criticism over the conditions in which the Thai farm laborers work. Human Rights Watch, in a 2015 report, said they often were housed in makeshift and inadequate accommodations and “were paid salaries significantly below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in excess of the legal maximum, subjected to unsafe working conditions, and denied their right to change employers.” A watchdog group found more recently that most were still paid below the legal minimum wage.
To attract foreign workers back to evacuated areas, Israel’s Agriculture Ministry has said it will extend their work visas and give them bonuses of about $500 a month. The offer is tempting, compared to the approximately $1,800 lump sum Thailand’s government has made available to aid Thais fleeing Israel.
Beyond the official offers, Thailand’s government has warned that scammers have been messaging family members claiming to be looking to pay back wages or benefits, only to collect personal information and trick them into transferring money.
When the Israeli chicken farm where Sompong Jandai had been working since July was rocked with explosions in the early days of the Israel-Hamas war — sparked by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel — the 31-year-old first thought about going home.
But two things changed his mind: the salary he makes — more than eight times what he’d earn in Thailand — and knowing he can send the bulk of it home to support his wife and four children and pay off loans he took to finance the move to Israel.
“At first I thought about leaving,” he said. After being initially evacuated to a safer area, he came back to work at the farm.
Thailand’s efforts to get help
Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone conversation Wednesday for help with Thais hostages.
Srettha has also been urging workers to come home, and wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday that the conflict is likely to expand.
“I would like to emphasize that the safety of our people is the most important thing,” he wrote. “Please return to our home.”
A Thai parliamentary delegation last week traveled to Iran, a Hamas ally, to meet with a Hamas representative and approach the issue from the other side.
Areepen Uttarasin, a Thai official who led the delegation, told reporters that the Hamas representative said the group would “try every possible way for all Thais held captive to return safely.” He did not identify the Hamas representative but said that he was told any releases had had been complicated by ongoing fighting.
In Israel, Yahel Kurlander, a volunteer who has been helping Thai workers in the aftermath of the attack, said she knows of at least 54 missing or kidnapped Thais. She said many bodies haven’t been identified yet.
Hours after the Hamas attack, Kurlander, a sociologist with Israel’s Tel-Hai College who specializes in agricultural labor migration with a focus on Thai workers, said she and other scholars and members of nongovernmental organizations started talking about what they could do to help.
“We just came to this realization,” she said. “If we won’t gather together and reach a hand to the Thai workers, nobody will.”
The first priority was to evacuate “highly traumatized” workers and provide food and other aid, she said. Now they’re reaching out to families of the missing, trying to gather details about tattoos or other identifying marks, and also help those who fled the Hamas rampage to return home or find new work. It’s important, she said, to give the workers “the freedom of choice.”
For Siroj Pongbut, that choice was to return home — at least until the fighting ends — even though he doesn’t make enough farming in Thailand to feed his wife and three children. The 27-year-old had been working as a farmhand in Israel for less than a month after more than a year of bureaucracy and borrowing money for the trip.
From that Saturday morning when Hamas attacked, he said he could hear sirens and explosions from the tomato farm where he worked. He made up his mind it wasn’t worth the risk to stay; about 150 of his coworkers at the farm stayed in Israel.
“I don’t know how it is going to be in the future,” he said by telephone while awaiting an evacuation flight from Tel Aviv last week. “I’m worried that it will become more serious.”
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