In the context of sharply increasing levels of international migration, development actors across Southeast Asia have begun to focus their attention on programming intended to make migration safer for aspiring and current migrant workers. These projects, however, typically begin with the assumption that more regular, orderly migration is also safer for migrants, an idea built into the language of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Compact on Migration. This article questions this assumption. It takes as its starting point the observation that migrant workers who move through legal channels do not systematically experience better outcomes among a range of indicators. Based on data collected from Cambodian, Burmese, Laotian, and Vietnamese labor migrants recently returned from Thailand, this work highlights the limits of regular migration to provide meaningfully “safer” experiences. Although migrants moving through regular channels report better pay and working con- ditions than those who moved through irregular channels, they also systematically report working conditions that do not meet legal standards, and routinely experience contract substitution. In other areas, regular migrants generally fare similarly to or worse than irregular migrants. They are more likely to experience deception and to have written or verbal agreements broken in migration processes. On arrival in Thailand, they routinely have their documents held, and they are more likely than irregular migrants to experience harassment and abuse both in the migration process and at their worksites. They are also more likely to return involuntarily and to struggle with financial insecurity and indebtedness after returning. These findings challenge mainstream development discourses seeking to promote safer migration experiences through expanding migration infrastructure. At the same time, they highlight the need for policymakers, development actors, and migration practitioners to reconsider the conflation of “safe” with “regular and orderly” migration throughout their programming.
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