Give Myanmar asylum seekers a chance

Give Myanmar asylum seekers a chance

A photograph released by the Royal Thai Army on March 30 shows an injured Myanmar refugee being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap district. Many political activists and civilians have fled the conflict in Myanmar to neighbouring countries. (Photo: AFP)
A photograph released by the Royal Thai Army on March 30 shows an injured Myanmar refugee being put on a stretcher before being transported to a hospital in Mae Sam Lap district. Many political activists and civilians have fled the conflict in Myanmar to neighbouring countries. (Photo: AFP)

The right to seek and receive asylum from political persecution is guaranteed under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the people of Myanmar who are fleeing conflict and economic hardship in their war-torn country don't seem to be receiving the help granted by the clause.

After last year's military coup in Myanmar, many political activists and civilians alike have fled to neighbouring countries in an attempt to seek refuge from the conflict at home.

However, Thailand and Malaysia in particular seem to be overlooking the sensitive and increasingly urgent issue. Both governments continue to treat each case by the book, labelling the refugees illegal migrants and detaining them. Worse, some of the refugees were sent back to Myanmar to face the danger that they had tried to run away from.

Overseas workers are a major source of revenue for the Myanmar government. Before the pandemic, some 4.25 million Myanmar overseas workers contributed over US$2.8 billion (about 99 billion baht) to the economy, or about 4% of Myanmar's GDP, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last year.

Even now, thousands of people have registered to work overseas under existing labour agreements and are awaiting clearance to depart, according to a number of migrant support organisations.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has disrupted the process, as the region's borders are still largely closed to prospective migrant workers in a bid to prevent a resurgence of Covid-19.

As a result, many workers who have paid their processing fees are now in limbo -- unable to depart, yet they can't get their money back from employment agents. Driven by mounting debt, many have been forced to seek immediate pathways to migrate, as most migrants took out loans or sold their property, including their farm, land or house to pay the required fees.

The Feb 1, 2021 coup has only exacerbated Myanmar's chronic economic problems, in addition to the disruptions brought on by the pandemic.

According to a World Bank report last month, Myanmar's GDP this year looks set to be about 13% lower than in 2019, meaning livelihoods and welfare mechanisms will continue to be severely strained. About 40% of the population is living below the national poverty line in 2022, unwinding nearly a decade of progress in poverty reduction. Myanmar's economy is projected to grow 3% in the fiscal year ending in September, following an 18% contraction last year.

The United Nations estimates that 14.4 million people in Myanmar need urgent humanitarian assistance owing to the economic and political turmoil following the coup. Many people in Myanmar are suffering from food insecurity, even starvation, prompting many to migrate to neighbouring countries by whatever means necessary to find work, while also escaping the junta's atrocities.

Meanwhile, Myanmar's junta continues to prosecute protest leaders, political figures, and anyone else opposing the coup.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) on July 19, security forces have killed over 2,092 civilians, arrested 14,736 people, and condemned 117 people to death, including two children. As of May 31, the military had torched 18,886 civilian homes in 435 locations since the coup.

Moreover, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that over a million people in Myanmar have been forcibly displaced by the military's indiscriminate attacks against civilians across the country. Many of them tried to enter Thailand or India in search of refuge, but were turned away at the border.

As a consequence, many ended up going to migrant brokers, paying between US$700-1,000 each in the hope of moving to Malaysia or Thailand, where they wish to escape the violence and make a living. However, tightened border security measures in Malaysia and Thailand meant many were arrested for illegal entry -- with a report estimating that between 60,000-80,000 Myanmar migrants were arrested in Thailand over the past 18 months.

With the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta's official name, continuing its heavy-handed crackdown on dissent, more people from Myanmar will attempt to enter Thailand through the porous border, despite the risk of being arrested. If they are arrested for illegal entry, the will have to stay for 45 days in jail and pay an 8,000-baht fine. However, as the SAC will only take in 400 deportees each week, many have been stuck for months, leading to overcrowding in Thai prisons.

In reality, many Myanmar citizens prefer to have the National Unity Government (NUG), the civilian government formed by the junta after the coup, to handle the labour issue. But the NUG is not recognised by Thailand and many other countries in Southeast Asia. It is recognised by the US, the EU, the UK and South Korea.

Similarly, many Myanmar workers have tried to find jobs in Malaysia. Last March, a group of 46 Myanmar migrants seeking jobs in Malaysia were arrested in Sadao district of Thailand, near the Malaysian border.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce has said that Thailand requires 500,000 more migrant workers to fuel its economic recovery. In addition to allowing some irregular workers to legally stay until 2025, the Thai government should offer those detained a chance to legally work in the country, instead of returning to the economic and political catastrophe across the border.

Similarly, Malaysia should grant asylum seekers the right to work. Indeed, hard-working migrants from Myanmar can positively contribute to their hosts' economies. It will be a a win-win situation for all concerned.


Tual Sawn Khai is a PhD fellow in sociology and social policy at the School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.



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