Dean Lao Range is part of Shan Hills that extend through Yunnan, Myanmar and Thailand. In the Chiang Rai province of Thailand, roads run through the range along the border with Myanmar, and razor wire is stretched around endlessly. Similarly, Sai River which forms the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar is also loosely fenced with wire. As someone who was born and raised in an island nation that shares no land borders with any other country, it always fascinates me to be in a border area where you can see another country so close, and at the same time it makes me think how unnatural it is (for modern states and inter-state system of today) to use these lines to divide people’s livelihoods. In fact, many people’s lives are not divided by these lines: I was again reminded of that while I was in Chiang Rai province, visiting communities of migrant workers and people living in border areas.
Chiang Rai and its Migrant Communities
Chiang Rai is the northmost province of Thailand, which shares borders with Myanmar to the north and Laos to the east. According to information provided by the Chiang Rai Employment Office, in July 2020 there were 14,623 officially registered migrants working in Chiang Rai province. Most of them were employed under MOUs between Thailand and neighbouring countries; including 13,322 migrant workers from Myanmar, 1,139 from Cambodia and 162 from Laos. In addition to these officially recognised migrant workers, there are many undocumented workers and migrant family members also living in the province. Therefore, the size of migrant communities in Chiang Rai province is much larger than the official figures state.
The capital city of the province is also called Chiang Rai, and in an alley of the city centre, there is a small office of the Aid Centre for Migrant Workers. This centre was set up by migrant community leaders, academic researchers and NGO representatives in April 2020 to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant workers who are affected by the pandemic and its socio-economic impacts. It is now led by around 30 community leaders, and except Suebsakun Kidnukorn, the representative of the Aid Centre and also a lecturer at Mae Fah Luang University, all of the leaders are migrant workers. The centre continuously supports migrant communities by providing access to daily necessities, PPE and covid vaccination, information related to issues such as health, immigration rules, labour rights and social welfare, as well as assistance with legal processes such as renewing passports and work permits.
As I first stepped into the centre, many documents and charts explaining the immigration process and application for social security covering the walls as well as piles of daily essentials such as bottles of water, instant noodles, soap bars and toothbrushes caught my attention. They support not only migrants who have been in Thailand since before the pandemic, but also those who have been newly arriving since the first national lockdown up until present day. The number of people supported during the last two years since the establishment of the centre is over 3,000.
When the COVID-19 outbreak started in March 2020, border checkpoints in Chiang Rai province were in chaos with tens of thousands of migrants rushing to the border to return home while borders were closed. The Thai government made a number of arrangements for migrant workers, who were stranded in Thailand after their employment or work permits had ended due to the border closure, to continue to stay in Thailand and work, while coordinating their repatriations with the neighbouring governments. Despite the gradual reopening of businesses and borders, entry of foreign workers was only allowed for white-collar workers, and low-paid migrant workers continued to be banned from entering Thailand. This gave many migrant workers who wished to return to work or reunite with their family members in Thailand no choice but to cross those borders across the river or forest “illegally.”
The Aid Centre also provides support to those who have been detained by law enforcement after crossing the border irregularly or found to be working without a legal permit. I accompanied the representative of the Aid Centre donating daily necessities to those who were newly detained in a detention centre. Four men and four women from Myanmar were detained there on that day. Some of them appeared to be very young; they could possibly be in their teens. I was told that they would spend 14 days there as a precautionary COVID-19 quarantine measure before then being imprisoned for 45 days for illegal entry into Thailand, and in the case of unaccompanied migrants aged under 18, the Aid Centre would try to help them reunite with their relatives.
Complex and Multiple Factors of Migration
Amid the continuing pandemic, on 1st February 2021, Tatmadaw or the military of Myanmar deposed democratically elected members of Myanmar’s ruling party, National League for Democracy (NLD), and vested power in the military junta. Since then, the people’s resistance against the coup has been faced by inhumane and brutal military crackdowns and the post coup violence across the country has displaced over one million people. In addition to the violence and political persecution, the country’s economic collapse also forced people to migrate. The International Labor Organization (ILO) stated in its January 2022 report that Myanmar’s annual employment losses in 2021 amounted to an estimated 8%, or 1.6 million jobs lost, indicating a sizable decrease from employment of 20.5 million in 2020. In addition, an estimated 25 million people (almost half Myanmar’s population) were living in poverty by the end of 2021, and 14.4 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance.
Many members of Myanmar’s migrant communities in Chiang Rai, who crossed borders after the coup, made decisions to do so in order to overcome complex socio-economic challenges – to flee from poverty and humanitarian crisis caused by both the coup and pandemic as well as to seek safety and better lives for themselves and their families. Suebsakun observed that some of the migrant workers who moved to Chiang Rai after the coup had lost work in Myanmar as they participated in the civil disobedience movement (CDM) which stood up against the military junta, and crossed the border in search for new work and safety. They prefer to represent themselves as migrant workers rather than refugees or evacuees. Their situation represents “mixed migration”, the concept that recognises the complex and nuanced dynamics of migration. It challenges traditional classifications of migration as either “forced” or “voluntarily”, or “refugees/asylum seekers” who flee conflicts and persecution or “migrants” who seek the betterment of their lives.
The complexities and nuances of people’s reasons for migrating are in fact very natural. We, living life as human beings, always make decisions considering many aspects of our own lives as well as our loved ones. It is less likely that making such a huge decision to move to another country is based on one single factor. Whether forced or voluntarily, migrants make their decisions with their own agency. In the same way that I felt that borders were being artificial lines when I saw razor wire in the forests and rivers, dividing people into categories such as “refugees”, “asylum seekers”, “migrant workers”, “visitors”, “family migrants” or “international students” also feels quite unnatural. These categories overlook a combination of interrelated factors, including economic, political, social, educational, religious or ethnic ones, that make people’s decision to cross borders – naturally as human beings.
Many forms of discrimination and unfair treatment of migrants or people on the move are rooted in the ways in which states and their systems treat them without understanding the nuances of their lives as human beings and forcing them to fit into readymade boxes. Therefore, these host or destination country governments grant migrants very limited rights and freedoms, if at all, and violate many of the fundamental human rights of these vulnerable populations.
On a Sunday afternoon, members of the migrant communities gathered in the Aid Centre to study Thai language. It was the very first session of the centre’s initiative in cooperation with a local NGO to hold weekly language classes. The students were eagerly participating in the class. I was told that despite Chiang Rai being a border region, migrant communities there are isolated and local people know very little about migrants living in their city. Their encounters are very limited. The Thai host community and the migrant communities hardly communicate with each other, even though they may work in the same places. In order to improve the integration of migrant workers into the local communities and also for local communities to better understand migrants living in Chiang Rai, the Aid Centre believes that equipping migrants with Thai language skills is essential. In addition to the language lessons, they also planned to hold computer skills training.
It is not rivers or mountain ranges that divide people’s lives, but rather the system and the societies which fail to recognise migrants as human beings and members of the society. As the pandemic has taught us that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, it is now time to ensure that migrants are truly recognised as neighbours, co-workers, friends and integral members of our society who have complex and dynamic lives, hopes and aspirations like all of us. This is the first and the most effective step forward for the better protection and promotion of migrant rights as human rights.
For another relevant essay on migrant workers from South East Asia, see Indonesia must take lead in ending oppression of women migrant workers – Academia – The Jakarta Post, 8 March 2023, https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2023/03/08/indonesia-must-take-lead-in-ending-oppression-of-women-migrant-workers.html
This article was written based on the author’s visit to Chiang Rai in “Response Measures and Migrant Workers’ Rights in Major East and Southeast Asian Destinations” in 2020. All photos were taken by the author during the visit. Republished with the author’s permission. Originally published here: https://bebesea.org/2022/07/borders-divisions-and-mixed-migration-complexity-and-dynamics-of-myanmar-migrants-lives-in-chiang-rai/