Chinese authorities have detained about 400 migrant workers from Myanmar for more than a year for entering the country illegally and working without official documents.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) news portal has learned from a newly released migrant that about 300 of the workers were held at a prison in the southern coastal city of Dongguan, while the rest are detained inside a seafood factory in the city of Weihai, Shandong province.
The 400 workers are among a pool of some 230,000 migrants who have sought work in China in the wake of armed conflict, environmental destruction and natural disasters in Myanmar, the Mekong region’s largest source of migrants, according to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The undocumented status of the workers leaves them susceptible to exploitation at the hands of business owners and local officials.
Hailing from Kyauktaw township in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, Aye Lwin Than arrived in China in March 2018 to work in a wire factory in Dongguan. He was arrested in September 2020 and released one year later.
“It was a large dormitory, and there were many dormitories, each about five floors. There were 19 or 20 rooms on each floor and all the rooms were full,” Aye Lwin Than, who was granted his release in September, told RFA’s Myanmar Service about his time at the prison in Dongguan.
“When we arrived after being arrested, there were 27 or 28 occupants in each room. They were all, like us, arrested while working. We had no idea at the time how many months or years we would be there or when we would be released,” said Aye Lwin Than. He called the situation “hopeless.”
Aye Lwin Than said 20 Myanmar citizens worked with him at the factory. Nine men and eight women were arrested, and three others escaped, he said.
He and five others were sent to the prison in Dongguan. He said that he did not know the fate of the other 12.
“The police asked me how we came into the country, who the agent and brokers were, how long we had been in the country, where we had worked, how much we earned, and things like that. They never told us what charges we were being held under,” he said.
“They then took us away in handcuffs, gave us medical checks and sent us straight to prison. On the way, in the prison bus, I asked where my friends were and they said we would be staying at the same place, but I never saw them again,” Aye Lwin Than said.
The five others who went to prison with Aye Lwin Than included one person from Yangon, one from Kachin state and three from Rakhine. They were all released and deported to Myanmar in September 2020.
Family members of some of the detainees in the Dongguan prison told RFA that they needed help securing their release.
Myanmar migrants work at factories, construction sites, farms, restaurants and as domestic helpers in China. But they are not legally allowed to be there, a situation that leaves them vulnerable to abuses, including forced labor, wage theft, human trafficking, extortion and debt bondage, aid groups say.
Chinese government officials sometimes work with business owners to exploit migrants, according to Aung Myat Min, who told RFA he escaped from the Nishi Haitai Marine Food Co. plant in Weihai, Shandong province, where he and at least 90 others he is aware of were forced to work without pay. (Source: RFA)