By Kelly Macnamara
MAHACHAI, Tuesday 7 September 2010 (AFP) - Oo's troubles with the local Thai police began with a request common across Asia -- he asked them to remove their shoes before entering his room.
It cost him nearly a month's wages.
The proud 26-year-old Myanmar migrant said the officers in Mahachai, an industrial area near Bangkok, asked him if he wanted to "make trouble".
Oo claims he was falsely accused of illegal lending and threatened with deportation -- despite having documents proving his legal status -- until he handed over 4,000 baht (128 dollars), around 20 day's pay.
Thailand has intensified its crackdown on unregistered migrants as part of attempts to legalise its huge population of overseas workers.
But rights groups are concerned that many people are swept up in the process despite having official documents, while there are fears that some police are using the operation to step up extortion.
Andy Hall, consultant to the Human Rights and Development Foundation, said police were extracting money from vulnerable migrants with "complete impunity".
"I think that the fact they're doing this so systematically all across Thailand shows just how much a culture of seeing the migrants as second class and as almost subhuman has now become entrenched," he said.
The government recently told authorities to step up efforts to identify illegal migrants, following a February 2010 deadline to apply for the National Verification scheme aimed at normalising foreign workers' status.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said authorities were keen to persuade migrants to join the system "so they can be protected", but he added the government was aware of police extortion in some areas.
"If officers are committing fraud and are reported we will prosecute those officers... but the problem is many of (the migrants) don't come forward," he said.
Figures from the Mahachai police show a surge to more than 400 arrests in August, up from around 80 in March. But Hall said the real numbers are likely to be in the thousands as arrested migrants with money pay to be released.
The total number of migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia could exceed two million, when an estimated one million unregistered workers are taken into account.
Hall stresses those from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, are not fleeing conflict. Rather they have left behind an economy "in ruins" and many send money home from Thailand.
"Maybe the conditions are better than in Burma, but they are caught between two hells," he said.
One Samut Sakhon employer, who refused to be named, said authorities had arrested over 200 people in a single day without checking their papers.
The workers were taken to Bangkok, forcing employers to send documents to the capital to free them.
"In some factories 30 out of 40 workers were arrested, so they can't run their businesses at all. Can you imagine how much we lose for not working for a few days? The police don't seem to care," she said.
Phyu Pwint Oo, a shy 19-year-old from southern Myanmar, described being caught up in a round-up as she returned home from her job in a Mahachai seafood factory.
She said it was only when she found herself in a cell in Bangkok with 50 other women that she realised she had been arrested by immigration forces.
"They gave me three meals a day, but I didn't have a chance to take a shower and could not change my clothes for six days," she told AFP a day after her employer secured her release.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said the arrival of central immigration forces in an area meant "all bets are off", with any deals between local police, employers and workers effectively cancelled.
But he said ordinarily the migrants were an "easy target" for local police, who arrest more than their quota and then release those with money for bribes.
Mahachai police commander Colonel Pongsak Chunak denied that there was any corruption in his force. "There have been no complaints about extortion in the area under my command," he said.
The subject remains taboo in a country where even businesses fear the police.
"The truth is there but I cannot say anything, it could be dangerous for my life," the Samut Sakhon employer said when questioned on corruption.