KANCHANABURI, THAILAND (AFP) – Trekking through dense jungle and mountainous terrain at night to avoid arrest, one couple from Myanmar endured a gruelling journey to Thailand – grasping for an economic lifeline as jobs dry up in their coup-hit home.
Myo Chit and his wife are among thousands of migrants who have made the crossing in recent months, spurred by the twin crises of a pandemic-hit economy and turmoil triggered by the junta’s ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.
Their two-day journey from Myanmar’s coastal Tanintharyi Region took them through corn farms, rubber plantations and dense jungle before they reached the porous border, where they crossed into Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province with the help of a smuggler.
There they risked arrest and immediate processing for deportation by Thai police.
The couple then travelled to Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok, where Myanmar migrants have historically found work.
But for undocumented migrants in Thailand, life under the radar is grim.
Many spend their nights in overcrowded housing, or in the homes of friends and relatives, and their days evading authorities.
“But we could not stay (in our town)… we had to think about the future of our children,” 45-year-old Myo Chit told AFP, using a pseudonym for fear of being tracked down by the Thai authorities.
He eventually secured the job he was desperate for at a clothing dye factory, earning USD10 a day.
With a six-year-old child and an infant left in his in-laws’ care in Myanmar, Myo Chit said leaving was difficult but had to be done.
“We could not stay there because of high prices – we had to leave our village,” he said. “We came here just to earn money.”
Myanmar workers have long sought jobs in neighbouring Thailand. Pre-pandemic, an estimated two million were living and working in the kingdom.
With borders closed since March 2020, migrants have no choice but to make the journey illegally.
There is no official data on the size of the influx, but experts say one indicator is the number of migrants who have been caught by authorities.
In the months after Myanmar’s February 1, 2021 coup, the number of arrests tripled, according to Thai government figures.
It peaked in November with more than 6,000 migrants intercepted – more than a 10-fold increase from the 560 people arrested in January.
According to Geraldine Ansart, the International Organization for Migration’s Thailand mission chief, for each person arrested, “it is realistic to assume that… at least one other Myanmar national could cross the border without being apprehended”.
Thai-based migrant rights activist Roisai Wongsuban said the spike in arrivals is due to Myanmar’s post-coup economic crisis, which has seen inflation soar and work opportunities evaporate.
With food prices doubling and fuel costs spiking as the value of the kyat, Myanmar’s currency, plummeted against the US dollar, many people became destitute, she said.
“It is hard for ordinary people.”
Seasonal workers, who for years had travelled in and out of Thailand, were left in the lurch after Covid-spurred border closures.
“The border has been closed for so long that there is no legal pathways for workers who want to come back to Thailand,” Roisai added.
Thai army spokesman General Santipong Thammapiya said it was mainly Thailand’s re-opening to tourists in November that was drawing Myanmar workers back – many of whom staff the kingdom’s vital industries, including the service and restaurant sector.
“Workers… wanted to come back,” he told AFP. “They also trust the Thai healthcare system, which can provide treatment for COVID.”
Demand for Myanmar workers is high in Thailand, where – given their status – they have no choice but to accept lower wages.
According to the Labour Ministry, there is a shortage of up to 200,000 workers in Thailand.
But according to Santipong, there is no tolerance in Bangkok for illegal migration, and those arrested making the attempt are sent “for legal processing followed by… repatriation”, he said.
Despite the obstacles, two people smugglers operating near Kanchanaburi province’s Three Pagodas Pass border crossing told AFP business has been good.
Prices to make the crossing range from THB13,000 to 25,000 (USD380-750), and desperation drives thousands to pay.
“Some are arrested, but there are even more people who are not,” one smuggler told AFP on condition of anonymity.