Myanmar & COVID-19

Myanmar Migrants Stranded Without Cash in Thailand by COVID-19

By Nyein Nyein 4 May 2020

Although there were expectations that more than 15,000 Myanmar migrants would flood land border checkpoints in Thailand in May, after four days only 158 people have crossed the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border due to Thai travel restrictions to curb COVID-19.

Thailand and Myanmar officials are still discussing allowing the returnees to reach the border.

Thailand, which has around 3,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and has had 54 fatalities, has imposed a 10 pm to 4 am curfew and restricted movement between provinces to stop the spread of coronavirus. Migrants often take night buses to reach Mae Sot by the morning before Thailand’s curfew was imposed.

Myanmar last week said returnees would be able to come back from May 3 after negotiations with the Thai authorities on the travel issues. Myanmar as of Monday has had 161 COVID-19 confirmed cases with six deaths.

On Monday, U Thant Zin Aung, the Karen State parliamentarian for Myawaddy, said 44 people had crossed the border at Myawaddy. Some would stay in the town’s quarantine centers and others would travel to centers in their townships, he said.

Thai restrictions have trapped many migrants in the country without work.

Counting the days to return home 

“When can we return homes?” is the frequent question being asked by migrants to Thai-based migrant labor rights groups, according to U Aung Kyaw, the chairman of the Mahachai-based Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN).

He said the embassy in Bangkok is in negotiation with the Thai authorities to allow migrants to take early morning buses to Mae Sot, Ranong or other borders to allow them to cross the following afternoon.

“We are expecting a decision soon,” he said, adding that the process was slow because the Thai government is currently experiencing executive holidays.

Except for seafood factories, migrant workers in construction and at garments, furniture, plastics and electronics factories have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. At least 5,000 migrants who contacted MWRN are unemployed, he added.

In Chiang Mai, where nearly 120,000 registered migrants were working, many have lost their jobs and are waiting to return home. In the meantime, hundreds are struggling for food and to pay the rent.

“They were excited about going back on May 1, but the extension of the travel restrictions last week has kept them here,” said Ko Johny from the Chiang Mai-based Gurkha Youth Association. Every day many people contacted them to ask about the latest Thai government guidelines and when to travel.

“They need support for food and they cannot pay the rent,” said Ko Johny.

Stuck without an income 

Ko Maung Maung Htoo, who worked at a hotel on Koh Tao until a month ago, plans to return.

He told The Irrawaddy on Monday that he and others are waiting for a boat to be allowed to leave the island. They hope to cross the border at Ranong to Kawthaung at the southern tip of Myanmar.

He said they were told the boat from Koh Tao would leave on May 7.

Although he just extended his one-year work visa for10,500 baht (454,000 kyats) in late March, Ko Maung Maung Htoo has no choice except to return due to the downturn in tourism.

“We have to pay for rent, food and other costs, and without a regular income, we cannot afford it in the long run,” he said after more than seven years working in tourism.

Some workplaces provide accommodation for their employees but others stay with their families and can no longer pay their bills.

U Min Oo, a migrant rights advocate at the Foundation for Education and Development (FED) in southern Thailand, said migrants would be able to return only when Phuket, Phang Nga and Ranong provinces lifted their lockdown measures.

Migrant workers and at least 10 million Thai citizens have lost their jobs due to coronavirus.

U Min Oo said the high cost of accommodation for migrants in tourist areas was a heavy burden.

“Some humanitarian groups can only contribute food but not provide free accommodation,” he said.

More than 70,000 migrants from Myanmar were working in the southern Thai tourist sector, according to FED.

FED said they were waiting for advice from the  Myanmar Embassy.

Due to the pandemic, sick migrants were nervous about seeking medical help for conditions like HIV and tuberculosis, U Min Oo said.

While the travel restriction are still in place, U Min Oo said they are trying to help return sick migrants first.

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