Thai farmhands in Israel face a grim choice: work in a war zone or go home to poverty
Ubon Namsan went to Israel a year ago as a farm laborer, toiling in the fields and greenhouses of a kibbutz just a few miles from the Gaza border, where he planted and harvested pineapple, strawberries and passion fruit. He was earning the equivalent of around $1,300 a month — a princely sum back in his native Thailand, where most of his wages went to support his family.
Then came the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7.
"There were a lot of rockets flying over our heads. They kept coming, more and more," Namsan tells NPR by phone from his family's home near the Thai-Laos border. "But we kept working."
Militants killed some 1,400 people in Israel that day and took 240 hostages into Gaza, according to Israeli authorities. Among those killed or kidnapped were more than 50 citizens of Thailand — 34 killed and 24 taken hostage, Thailand's ambassador to the U.S., Tanee Sangrat, confirmed to NPR Wednesday. Nineteen more Thais were injured in the attacks.
Many hailed from the same impoverished region of northeastern Thailand that Namsan comes from. Thais make up the largest group of foreign nationals working in Israel, mostly employed doing unskilled labor in the country's farms.
Despite the barrage of Hamas rockets he witnessed that day, Namsan, 27, says initially he wasn't too worried. Although things had been quiet along the Gaza border for a few months leading up to Oct. 7, he'd seen incoming rockets before — they weren't targeting the farm fields where he worked, but instead appeared bound for Israeli cities farther away. He assumed the same was true last month.
He was unaware that the attacks were in fact targeting kibbutzim, where he and other foreign laborers were working. He only learned that days later. The news didn't come through any official channel. He learned it instead on a Facebook page run by fellow Thais working in Israel.
Among those Hamas killed were several Thai farmhands who worked north of him. Namsan didn't know them well, but says they'd played a few pickup games of soccer together. The news shocked him.
He approached his Israeli employer about going home, was made current on his wages and later boarded a Thai government evacuation flight.
Now, back at home in Thailand, he's theoretically on a 45-day holiday mandated in his contract. But "if things get better in that time, I was told I can just come back and finish out my contract," he says.
Namsan wonders if and when he'll be able to return to Israel. "I want to go back. In Isaan I can't make any money," he says, using the Thai name for the northeastern region where he lives. Rice and sugar-cane cultivation dominate the heavily agricultural area, where the average monthly income per household reported in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, amounted to less than $600.
Yahel Kurlander, a sociology professor at Tel-Hai College in northern Israel who studies the country's Thai migrant population, says in 2012, Israel and Thailand forged a bilateral agreement to ease entry for Thai farm workers. Some 30,000 Thais were working in Israel prior to last month's Hamas attack. Namsan is one of more than 7,000 who have since chosen to go home — at least temporarily, Kurlander says.
"The majority of Thai workers actually stayed in Israel," she says. "[They] are completely safe because they are located in areas ... far from Gaza."
Phairin Phuangsri, who works about 60 miles east of Gaza, is one of them.
"We have a lot of soldiers here and we aren't concerned," says Phuangsri, 41, who comes from a small village near Surin, Thailand, and has worked in Israel harvesting tomatoes and eggplant for about three years.
His family in Thailand, however, is on edge, he admits. They've seen videos of the death and destruction in the aftermath of the Hamas attack and learned of the deaths of the 34 Thais who were killed. They are worried he will get injured or killed, and have implored him to come home.
"I keep telling them, it's not like that where I am. I'm fine," he insists.
Julie Fox, a researcher for Hostage Family Forum, an Israeli nonprofit which advocates for Hamas abductees, says that while the fate of Israeli hostages captured on Oct. 7 dominates the international media, the 24 Thais — as well as Nepalis, a Filipino and a Tanzanian who are believed to have been kidnapped in the attacks — have received much less attention. Nepali agricultural students were also reportedly killed Oct. 7, as were at least two Filipinos.
Using Facebook and other means, Fox has been trying to track down and inform families in Thailand to let them know of loved ones who are either missing or dead.
"It's taken a very long time for anyone from the [Thai] government to be in touch," Fox says. "I'm often the first person to speak to them, and I'm not an official at all. I'm a volunteer."
Kurlander also asserts that "the Thai government is working very, very slowly, letting the families know."
Sangrat, the Thai ambassador to Washington, tells NPR that Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and the country's Ambassador to Israel Pannabha Chandraramya "have worked very hard to disseminate this information to all the [Thai] workers and nationals in Israel." Officials are doing everything they can to reach the families of victims, he says.
"I think that we all try to do our best to facilitate and offer assistance to our workers," Sangrat says.
Thai authorities have reportedly been working unofficially through Iran, which supports Hamas, to secure the release of their hostages, U.S. and Israeli media have reported. Sangrat tells NPR that Thai Muslim leaders are "working with many Middle Eastern countries with whom we have close and friendly relations to secure and expedite the safe release of Thai hostages," but says he has no information "about specific countries and channels that they employ these efforts."
Israeli officials are already eyeing options for filling the gap left by the Thai laborers who've departed, as well as thousands of Palestinian workers expelled by Israel since the Hamas attack. A just-signed bilateral agreement with Sri Lanka opens the door to hiring 10,000 farm laborers from that country. But even before the Hamas attack, in May, a similar deal was inked with India to import some 42,000 Indian laborers to replace Palestinians in the construction industry.
Meanwhile, Namsan says he feels like he's in limbo — wanting to return to Israel, but not sure if now is the right time. There are other options for Thai laborers closer to home — in South Korea, for example, but the government there requires a test of Korean language skills. One of the draws of Israel, Namasan says, is that it has no such language requirement for Hebrew.
As for Phuangsri, after three years in Israel, he's finally managed to pay off debts back in Thailand. He's just to the point where he can begin saving for his family's future, he says.
"I'm not ready to go back," Phuangsri says, despite his family's pleadings. "In my village, I work hard but don't earn anything. I'd rather stay here and make money."
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