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Thailand’s Closed Borders Fueling Crisis in Neighboring Countries

Six Burmese nationals were caught Sept. 8 trying to sneak into Thailand.
Six Burmese nationals were caught Sept. 8 trying to sneak into Thailand. (Photo: TNA)

Thailand’s closed borders are not only causing misery for Thais dependent upon tourism, they’re fueling a crisis in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, as well.

After several promises to reopen the borders for migrant workers, the government still is giving legal Laotians, Cambodians and Burmese dependent on higher-wage Thai jobs the cold shoulder and increasing crackdowns on illegals, claiming they are carriers of the coronavirus.

Legally or not, the migrants are continuing to come.  Fourteen Laotians were caught Sept. 13 in Ubon Ratchathani, which borders Laos, saying they had paid 4,000 baht each for jobs in Bangkok. A day earlier, border patrol officers detained 12 Cambodians after they had sneaked into Thailand by navigating a waterway on the border and scaling a fence in an eastern province.

The Cambodian men reportedly told the authorities that they could not find a job back home in Poipet and had run out of money, so they tried their luck to get into Thailand.

Thousands of Cambodians had been hoping the border would soon be reopened so that they could resume working here, even though work conditions can be grueling for menial laborers. Millions of disadvantaged people from neighboring nations continue to seek work in the country as comparable employment opportunities are unavailable back home.

Before the pandemic, up to 5 million migrant workers were employed in Thailand, many of them in irregular and undocumented lines of low-paid menial work, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.

“Of the 4-5 million migrants that are estimated to be living and working in Thailand, about 1-2.5 million are thought to hold irregular status,” the IOM notes, adding that sectors such as fishing, agriculture, hospitality, domestic work and manufacturing all rely largely on migrant workers for manpower.

“High costs, long waiting times and bureaucratic red tape discourage many from entering to work in Thailand through legal routes,” the U.N. agency explains. “The lack of effective law enforcement has also contributed to several pressing issues such as poor working conditions, exploitation, human smuggling and trafficking, and transnational crime.”

Thailand serves a key economic function in the region by providing employment for millions of people in Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, who comprise the bulk of the migrant workforce and are drawn by job opportunities and higher wages.

However, Thailand continues to impose severe restrictions on the movement of migrant workers from these neighboring countries for fear that they might spread Covid-19. Thailand has had only two documented cases of local transmissions of the deadly coronavirus that causes Covid-19 for more than three months.

Yet measures to contain the pandemic have come at a great cost to the economy and to the livelihoods of millions. Key sectors in Thailand, such as tourism, services and manufacturing, have especially been hit hard and experts predict that the economy could shrink by as much as 10 percent this year over last year.

“The pandemic is scarring the economy, especially with the (high rates of) business closures and unemployment,” says Yunyong Thaicharoen, executive vice-president of the Economic Intelligence Centre, a research think-tank of Siam Commercial Bank. “With a vulnerable labor market, underemployed and furloughed workers could reach 3-5 million in the coming period.”

The pandemic has been ruinous for millions of low-income earners, whether they are Thai nationals or migrant laborers, and has led to widespread misery and desperation.

The rate of suicides among Thais, partly driven by increasing concerns about economic woes, has spiked in recent months, with a fifth more suicide deaths recorded in the first six months of this year than during the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Health. No statistics are available on the current suicide rate among migrant workers, but it is believed to be similarly high.

Health experts have been warning that continued economic hardships can take a heavy toll on the mental and physical well-being of people, especially the poor. Chronic financial woes can worsen the already fragile state of mind of people suffering from emotional and mental problems, they say.

“If someone already has severe economic problems, then Covid-19 makes the situation more severe and puts them under more stress,” said Amornthep Sachamuneewongse, a prominent mental health advocate.

The original version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.