Migrant workers from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos have found themselves suddenly unemployed and scrambling to go home as Thailand’s economy shuts down due to government efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The shutdown is causing ripples throughout the region as many of the migrants send money home to support their family members.
While some who remain in Thailand are struggling financially, others are trying to return to their home countries amid border closures and concerns that they could bring the virus with them.
According to The Khmer Times, Cambodia’s border with Thailand closed down, effective Monday.
Sarun Chin, a Cambodian migrant who had been working for three years in a Bangkok eatery, told RFA he had never faced a situation like he is in today.
The Banteay Meanchy province native had been able to save at least 6,000 baht (US$183) per month, but now he is unable to send money to his parents as he normally would because his job was suspended on March 21 through at least mid-April.
“People have stopped coming to eat grilled meat, because they are afraid they’ll catch COVID-19,” he said.
Dy Thehoya, the head of Thailand’s migrant labour organization, told RFA that if Cambodians must endure prolonged unemployment in Thailand, many would be at risk of starvation.
He said that under a Memorandum of Understanding between the governments of Thailand and Cambodia, migrant Cambodians who find themselves unemployed should be entitled to 50% of their salaries just like their Thai counterparts.
But due to legal technicalities, many Cambodian migrants are officially self-employed, and thereby do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Many others might not qualify because they do not have legal residency.
According a report by Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour, there are more than 1 million Cambodian workers in Thailand, but a report from the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), that number swells to about 2 million when undocumented Cambodians are taken into account.
Meanwhile on Thailand’s border with Myanmar, thousands of migrant workers are returning home daily. Labour activists warn that they might bring the coronavirus with them and could infect their own families.
Karen National Media Correspondent Mann Myo Myint, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that more than 10,000 people crossed the Myawaddy-Maesot No. 2 bridge into Myanmar on Sunday alone.
“At least 3000 migrants are returning [to Myanmar]daily,” said Mann Myo Myint from Maesot, on the Thai side of the bridge.
The Myanmar government officials have set up facilities at border gates to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and returning migrant workers must record their name and address.
The high numbers of returnees in Maesot come even as the Thai government has ordered restrictions on traffic between Bangkok and Maesot, as well as border gate closures. The mayor of Maesot went against these orders to keep open the No. 2 bridge into Myanmar as so many are still trying to cross.
A Thai government official told RFA, “The bridge officially closed March 23, but we are allowing migrant workers from Myanmar to cross [into Myanmar].”
Meanwhile in Thailand’s Mukdahan province, thousands of Lao migrants are trying to cross the Mekong River into Laos’s Savannakhet province, but the order to close the border could strand them there.
A Thai immigration officer at the second Lao-Thai Mekong Friendship Bridge told RFA’s Lao Service that not all of the workers were able to cross before Monday’s deadline.
An official from the border gate on the Lao side of the border told RFA that after receiving word that the Thai authorities are allowing more Lao migrants to cross the border, Savannakhet’s government set up a task force to also inspect their health before allowing them to return to their homes.
“They should be inspected for the virus and subject to 14 days quarantine. If everything is clear they can go home. We have a responsibility to protect them, their families and society first,” said the official.
A Lao task force committee estimated that over the past weekend more than 26,000 people who came across the border from Thailand, most of whom were Lao migrants.
As of Wednesday, Thailand reported 934 confirmed coronavirus cases and four deaths. All Thai-based airlines suspended operations starting Wednesday and the Thai government declared a national emergency effective Thursday through the end of April. (Source: RFA)