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Burmese migrant exodus spreads to southern Thailand

Returning migrants arrive in Kawthaung on 4 July 2017 after crossing the estuary from Ranong in Thailand. (PHOTO: DVB)

Hundreds if not thousands of Burmese migrant workers and their families have returned to Burma in recent days via Tenasserim [Tanintharyi] border crossings as the ripple effect of a police crackdown on undocumented migrants begins taking effect in southern Thailand.

More than 1,000 Burmese migrants have returned via the Maw Taung border checkpoint in Tenasserim, about 100 kilometres southeast of Myeik, between 30 June and 3 July, with perhaps a similar number crossing at Kawthaung, the southernmost port in Burma.

“Since 30 June, we have stood at the border gate welcoming two hundred to two hundred and fifty returning migrants every day,” said Myo Thant, a migrant affairs worker. “Most of them have returned with the help of brokers.”

He told DVB earlier today that a temporary relief camp had been set up near Maw Taung to host the returnees. “Many of these migrants do not have enough money to go back to their hometowns. We are trying to provide the necessary assistance so they can get home.”

Hundreds more migrants have flooded back to their home country from the Thai port of Ranong, where thousands of Burmese have worked for years in the fisheries sector. Ranong sits just a stretch of water from Kawthaung, which recorded a total of 194 migrants returning on 3 July alone.

A representative of an express bus line in Kawthaung told DVB that the company was reducing fares in half for the benefit of the returning workers and their family members.

“For those migrants who cannot afford the bus fares, the Department of Relief and Resettlement will cover the costs,” a social worker from the department told DVB.

Meals and cold drinks were provided to returning migrants in Kawthaung.

Between two and three million Burmese work or reside in neighbouring Thailand, most working on rubber plantations, construction sites, in the agriculture or fisheries sector or as domestic workers.

Following a stringent new labour law, Thai police began cracking down on migrant workers and busting factories and work sites where foreign labourers are known to work. Tens of thousands of Burmese are believed to have packed up and returned home in the past two weeks, plus a high number of Cambodians and Laotians.

Yesterday the Thai government tried to stem the exodus, promising a 120-day grace period for employers and migrant workers to abide by the new foreign labour decree, which imposes heavy fines on employers and employees alike. However, the damage had already been done.

Speaking yesterday, Thailand’s caretaker prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, implied that Thailand needed to get tough on illegal migrant workers to meet commitments it has made to combat human trafficking.