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Migration from Myanmar to Thailand surges amid fighting, COVID concerns

The number of migrants crossing illegally from Myanmar to Thailand has surged in recent months as residents of regions near the border flee fighting with government troops and outbreaks of COVID-19, sources say.

Nearly 20,000 migrants trying to cross the border were arrested by Thai police during the last five months alone, with many discovered in life-threatening situations, according to the Foundation for Education and Development, a Thai-based NGO.

Some had been left behind by traffickers in caves or forest areas near the border, foundation spokesman Min Oo said in a statement. “Sometimes Thai police officers would find them after receiving tips from local residents, and the migrants would then sometimes try to escape,” he said.

“Just the other day, a car full of Myanmar migrants fell off the road into an abyss. Also, two women died of suffocation after being left in a crowded car in the jungle. There have been shootings on the road as well,” he said. “The situation is very bad.”

The number of Myanmar migrants detained by Thai police is growing day by day, with many now facing shortages of food and shelter, Min Oo said. Most were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar’s Sagaing, Magway and Mandalay regions and Karen and Kayah states following the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup that overthrew civilian rule, he added.

Others trying to cross have been looking for work after factories in Myanmar shut down due to fighting and the spread of COVID-19 in the military-ruled country, said Thida Win, a resident of Magway region’s Yayzagyo township now working at a garment factory in Thailand after crossing the border in April.

“Most of the factories in Myanmar were closed because of COVID and the coup, and as a result many people were left without jobs. So instead of just sitting at home they took loans and came to Thailand to work,” she said.

“Because we are here illegally, we don’t dare go out except to go to work and then return home. I send every penny I earn back to my sisters, and when my debt is paid, I will call my brother and sister here to work too, as they have no jobs where they live,” she said.

Aung Ko Win, a second-year university student from Sagaing who is currently looking for work in a small Thai border town, said people pay between 20,000 and 30,000 baht ($571.59 to $857.39) if they want to work illegally in Thailand.

“We are suffering from the war in Sagaing, so I left my family and came to Thailand when it became difficult to earn a living at home, and after passing through many checkpoints on the way, I got here and am now staying with a friend,” he said.

“I have no idea where to find a job. I’ll have to take any kind of work that comes by. All of this is for the sake of my family.”

Most illegal migrants in Thailand work in the construction and fishing industries or in factories, with others working as house maids or as hired hands in farming, sources say. They can earn between 10,000 and 15,000 baht a month, but because they work illegally they have no insurance or labor rights.

Reached for comment, Adisorn Kerdphol — an official with the Migrant Workers Group in Thailand — told RFA he has raised the issue of the detained migrant workers with the Thai government, while a staff member of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok dealing with migrant workers told RFA that the Thai government would deport the migrant workers after their release from jail.

Speaking to RFA on Thursday, Pairote Chotikasathien, the director general of the Thai Ministry of Labor’s Department of Employment, said that Thailand has since January brought Myanmar workers into the country legally to fill labor shortages in industry and the fishing sector.

“As for the illegal workers, we will propose to the government that they have them registered, hopefully by late June or sometime next month,” he said.

Meanwhile, workers coming into Thailand illegally will still be detained and repatriated by the same route through which they entered. And though immigration law stipulates that an illegal migrant may be jailed for up to two years and fined 20,000 baht, they are normally just sent home, he said.

The International Labor Organization said in a 2021 report that around 1.6 million people were unemployed in Myanmar following the spread of COVID and the military coup, with 25 million — more than half the country’s population — possibly facing famine by the end of 2022.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Additional reporting by Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok. Written in English by Paul Eckert and Richard Finney.