Young People Clamour to Leave Myanmar in Giant Brain Drain

By The Irrawaddy 18 August 2022

Faced with rising unemployment, restrictions on human liberties and numerous other uncertainties, many young people are leaving Myanmar in an unprecedented brain drain.

“Our futures seem uncertain and we feel completely hopeless,” said a young person, speaking for many.

Ko Aung Pyae from Yangon is moving to Japan. Rising costs, as the kyat’s value tumbles, are taking a heavy toll on young people. Japan, South Korea, Dubai, Malaysia and Thailand are popular destinations as people hope to send money back to their families.

“I used to earn around a million kyats a month but my income has declined. As life is becoming more difficult, I have no other choice but to leave the country,” Ko Aung Pyae said.

Young Yangon residents crowded the streets before dawn on August 5 to apply for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test to study at Japanese universities or find work.

The tests have five levels, N5 to N1. Those wishing to find skilled work must pass N3 while N5 opens the door to a training visa application, which costs around 7 million kyats (US$280) and allows applicants to care for Japan’s elderly population.

Applicants for the Japanese language proficiency test. / CJ

Dubai and South Korea are often preferred over Japan because of the lower costs.

“Life is hard in Myanmar even with a job. I want to work abroad and earn more money,” Ko Zwe Mann, 25, told The Irrawaddy.

He initially planned to work in Japan but realized the language exam would take another year so he is now hoping to work in a Dubai hotel.

Privileged, well-educated young men like Ko Aung Pyae and U Zwe Mann can opt for Dubai, Japan or South Korea but many others look to Thailand and Malaysia, which cost less in agents fees and require few qualifications.

Meanwhile, engineers often opt for Singapore.

Skilled employment opportunities are collapsing in Myanmar, the International Labor Organization reported on August 1.

It estimated that 1.1 million people have lost their jobs since 2020 and it said working conditions are increasingly insecure with severe incursions on labor rights.

U Peter Nyunt Maung, vice-chairman of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, told The Irrawaddy: “More people are thinking about working overseas due to job scarcity. Incomes are falling.”

Now the coronavirus pandemic is under control, more citizens will be leaving to find work in neighboring countries, he said.

Between the February 2021 coup and December last year, between 60,000 and 80,000 migrants were detained by the Thai authorities for illegally crossing the border. Some 12,000 more were detained between January and April, according to the Thai border police.

Migrant rights organizations in Thailand estimate that more than 100,000 migrants from Myanmar have illegally crossed the Thai border.

Migrants at Yangon International Airport. / CJ

Long queues form each day to apply for passports at Yangon’s passport office in Yankin. Many apply online with waits reaching at least three months.

South Korea is planning to employ more foreign workers and has increased the basic pay from around 9,000 won ($6.80) to 10,000 won per hour in its bid to revive the Covid-hit economy.

South Korea said it will employ more than 9,000 migrants from Myanmar in construction, manufacturing and agriculture after the EPS Korean Language Proficiency Test is held this month. Annually, the EPS test attracts more than 3,000 applicants.

But migrants can face labor rights violations and tough work while they adjust to different cultures and unfamiliar food.

“Though we get high pay, migrants often face workplace bullying. I have tolerated all those things, telling myself that I can’t return,” said Ma Myat Hsu, who works at a hotel in Dubai. She previously worked with preschoolers in Myanmar.

She said she feels inferior whenever problems arise at work but knows that people’s problems are worse in Myanmar.