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Looking for Better Life Puts Burmese Migrants at Risk in Thailand

August 05, 2007

Saw Wah* sat in the noisy, stifling darkness and hoped the Thai police manning the checkpoints would not discover him.

He had paid 3,500 baht (about US $100) to ride in the luggage compartment of a bus for the 8-hour ride from Bangkok to Mae Sot. “Every time the bus arrived at a checkpoint, I was scared to breathe for fear that they would discover me,” said Saw Wah. “I heard some passengers leave the bus with the police.” They were illegal migrants, just like him.

Saw Wah, 22, was one of thousands of Burmese refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burmese border in Tak Province. Burmese refugees are not allowed to live or work outside the camp; most residents have no jobs, no income and not much of a future.

He and ten others had paid a courier 5,000 baht ($150) to take them to Bangkok to find work. They set out on foot, had to tote their own food and slept in the forest. Just outside Bangkok, Saw Wah was detained for three days before finding work. Separated from his friends, he was employed by a Chinese man to purchase used electronics and other goods at a wage of 4,000 baht per month ($120), which included a small room. He had to provide his own food.

Saw Wah’s story is typical of many Burmese refugees, who increasingly fall prey to human traffickers. Half of all Burmese migrant workers in Thailand have been trafficked, according to the Mae Sot-based group Social Action for Women (SAW), and many of them don’t even realize it.

“The problem is that people do not know they have been trafficked. Even when they face violence, they refuse to go back to Burma,” said SAW director Aye Aye Mar. “If they escape from [employers], they cannot afford to pay back the money they borrowed to find work in Thailand in the first place.”

Not all of Thailand’s migrant workers are illegal. More than 400,000 Burmese workers renewed their work permits in June this year, according to the Chiang Mai-based Migrant Assistance Program. But many opt for less official channels to find employment. Trafficking in Persons, a US State Department report launched in mid-June, described Burma as “a source country for women and men trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and sexual exploitation.” The report criticized Burma’s military government for not doing enough to stop the flow of human trafficking, particularly of women and children.

Aye Aye Mare said that Burmese can be trafficked in a variety of ways. They are brought into Thailand in vegetable carts, diesel tanks or by walking through a vulnerable point along the border. Some have died from suffocation. Women have been raped by couriers on their way to Bangkok. Migrants can pay as much as 15,000 baht ($450) to get from Mae Sot to the Thai capital, where they hope to find employment.

Saw Wah lasted only six months at his job in Bangkok. Returning to Mae Sot took considerable effort and substantial risk. He endured an expensive and dangerous ride in the belly of a bus. In addition to the 3,500 baht bus fee, he had to pay 4,000 baht ($120) in additional fees and 300 baht ($8) to get from Mae Sot to his home in the refugee camp.

“After 8 hours sitting in darkness, I felt dizzy and weak. I nearly feel down after the luggage door opened and I tried to stand up in the light,” Saw Wah said. “I will not go back to work [in Bangkok] again.”

*Saw Wah is not his real name.

Adapted from: "Looking for Better Life Puts Burmese Migrants at Risk." The Irrawaddy News. 11 July 2007.

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