What Will it Take to Bring Struggling Myanmar Migrant Workers Home from Thailand?

By The Irrawaddy 16 May 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the Myanmar government’s repatriation of migrant workers from abroad as Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand face difficulties in returning to Myanmar. We’ll discuss why there are delays and what difficulties Myanmar migrant workers are facing in the meantime. U Aung Kyaw, chairman of the Myanmar Migrant Workers Rights Network in Thailand and U Htoo Chit, director of the Phang Nga-based Foundation for Education Development in Phuket in southern Thailand, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

You two have been actively engaged in the issues of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand. So, my first question to Ko Aung Kyaw is about how the Myanmar government planned to repatriate Myanmar migrant workers around the end of April. As they were the second batch of Myanmar migrant workers returning to the country in large numbers, the Myanmar government expected a second wave of COVID-19 cases. But only around 150 Myanmar migrant workers were able to return in the first week of May and there was no return en-masse like the first batch of returning migrants. Recent reports also say that they will be only able to return to the country in June. What are Myanmar migrant workers going through in Thailand and what difficulties are they facing?

Aung Kyaw: Many workers face temporary and permanent redundancies in Thailand. Being temporarily jobless is not a problem, but as they are now jobless for months, they have difficulties paying apartment rent as well as electricity and water bills.

The Thai government said those wishing to return would be allowed to do so on April 16, so many workers only prepared [to stay] for that period. But then [the Thai government] said it would only allow the migrant workers to return in early May because it still couldn’t be contained the coronavirus in the country. So, all of them were waiting with the expectation of returning on May 1. But then [the Thai government] said it would only allow [them to leave] at the end of May, in order to better contain the virus. As the Thai government has imposed an overnight curfew between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., migrant workers inside the country find it too difficult to make it back across the border.

Myanmar migrant workers have been instructed by the Myanmar government to register with Myanmar embassy in Thailand for their return. Once the Thai government gives permission, the Myanmar government said it will arrange for Myanmar migrant workers to return to the country. Around 30,000 Myanmar migrant workers have registered for return on Monday, according to the Embassy. Every day, Myanmar migrant workers contact the embassy by phone, Viber and Line and say they are short on food.

YN:  Around 30,000 migrants returned in the first batch. The government, taking lessons from the first batch of returnees, believes that it will be able to effectively handle it this time. The problem is that only the Myawaddy-Mae Sot border gate is opened now and migrant workers can’t return through other border gates. Ko Htoo Chit, you have written an article calling for the opening of all the border gates. What are the difficulties facing migrant workers as only one gate is open?

Htoo Chit: As U Aung Kyaw said, migrant workers are still inside Thailand. They have difficulties travelling from one province to another. I don’t know exactly which government decided to open only the Myawaddy-Mae Sot gate, but the government that made the decision is responsible for the consequences because this decision has caused problems on a daily basis for migrant workers.

There are many other border gates that migrants could cross through into Myanmar, without crossing other provinces in Thailand and without breaking the curfew orders of the Thai government. It only takes between 30 minutes and an hour to cross the border from Ranong [in Thailand] to Kawthaung [in Tanintharyi Region]. Why should migrant workers [working in Ranong] travel to Mae Sot in order to cross the border into Myawaddy and then return to Kawthaung? This is not realistic.

There are four official border gates along the Myanmar-Thai border, and there are also other gates that are occasionally opened. These include Htee Kee [in Tanintharyi Region], Three Pagodas Pass [in Karen State], Maw Taung [in Tanintharyi Region] and Mese [in Kayah State].  There are many existing gates. I don’t understand why those gates are closed and only the Mae Sot gate is opened. Myanmar will be able to repatriate Myanmar workers more effectively if all the gates are opened.

We would like to request the two governments to open all the gates, even temporarily. Now, 181 migrant workers are in the cells of Ranong immigration authorities, and the Thai government is ready to repatriate them to Myanmar. We would like to ask the two governments to hold negotiations and open all the gates as quickly as possible.

YN: According to what you two have said, Myanmar migrant workers were prepared to return to Myanmar, but they still can’t return due to the nationwide curfew imposed by the Thai government and travel bans imposed by local authorities. As the Thai government has started to ease lockdowns, it is reasonable to hope that Myanmar migrant workers will be able to return home in June. But then, we have also seen reports of coronavirus infections among the detainees in police cells in southern Thailand. Ko Aung Kyaw, does Thai government really care for the health of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand and their return to Myanmar?

AK: That is very important. We have provided recommendations for the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand regarding that. We pointed out that as the number who are jobless and facing financial hardship is increasing, they will have to face more serious problems if we can’t take swift measures for them to be able to return home as soon as possible. We held talks with the officials of the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand and they said they understand that point and that they are negotiating with Thai authorities to enable Myanmar migrant workers to leave their places early in the morning and arrive at the border in the evening with a single day so that they don’t need to go against the curfew and don’t need to wait until June 1.

But Thai government has not yet responded to the request of the Myanmar government. If Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand still can’t return to Myanmar on June 1, their troubles will double. To answer the question of whether the Thai government is giving sufficient protection for Myanmar migrant workers, I believe it will handle it systematically if there are infections, because anyone can contract the virus, regardless of his race, religion or color. As an infection can spread to people of any nationality, the Thai government must systematically treat the 34 COVID-19-positive Myanmar nationals, who were deported by Malaysia and detained in southern Thailand. The Thai government said it will treat them free of charge and we believe it is doing so.

YN: Suppose Myanmar migrant workers can return to the country in June, Ko Htoo Chit, what are your suggestions for Myanmar migrant workers who are preparing to return, and for the Myanmar government, which is preparing to receive the returnees?

HC: We don’t want them to have to wait until June. There are around 400 Myanmar migrant workers—over 180 in prison and over 200 outside—in Ranong. They can return to Myanmar if the gates are open. It is unrealistic to open only the Myawaddy-Mae Sot gate. This will cause an extra burden for migrant workers. We would like to request that existing border gates be opened as soon as possible. This will help Myanmar migrant workers avoid interprovincial travel bans in Thailand and also help the Myanmar government take care of the returnees more effectively.

YN: What else would you like to suggest, Ko Aung Kyaw?

AK: There are more challenges for us in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, as migrant workers have to stay in foreign countries instead of inside Myanmar. Many people have lost their jobs over the past three months. The labor laws in Thailand clearly state that employers have to give [employees] 75 percent of their salaries in the case of temporary suspension of their jobs, and compensation has to be given to employees for permanent factory closures. Some factories compensated [their workers] according to labor laws, but many employees were made redundant without any compensation, and they are experiencing hardship.

The workers will be left completely helpless if curfews are extended due to a new wave of coronavirus infections [in Thailand]. All we can do for the time being is to send some food to the migrant workers upon receiving their requests for help. But we can’t afford to pay their rent and electricity bills. In some places, landlords have evicted them, and they are down-and-out. I would like to request that the two governments repatriate the migrant workers, who are going through bitter experiences, to their mother country as soon as possible.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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