Running out of money and pinned down by border closures and bureaucratic hurdles, tens of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers remain trapped in China and Laos long after they lost their jobs when host countries shut down factories and businesses to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the Myanmar migrants have worked for years in China and are returning reluctantly to a country being ravaged by the third wave of the coronavirus and engulfed in political and military conflict in the wake of the Feb. 1 military overthrow of the elected government.
More than 60,000 Myanmar workers are caught in the southwestern Chinese border towns of Ruili (in Burmese, Shweli) and nearby Jiegao, chafing under onerous medical examinations with no way to earn income to survive, the workers told RFA.
The two border trading hubs are magnets for workers from Myanmar seeking better-paying construction, textile, and farming jobs in China.
Moe Pwint from Myanmarâ€™s northern Shan state worked at a wok factory in Ruili for more than a year, earning 1,600 yuan (U.S. $250) a month until April, when she was told to stop working and remain at home. The factory closed two months ago, and now she is stuck in China waiting to return home.
â€œWhen the border crossings were closed and the goods were not coming in, the boss couldnâ€™t pay our salaries,â€ she said, adding that she could not subsist on the 15 yuan a day for food she was given by her employer.
The pandemic and lockdowns have driven up food prices and rents, worsening the situation for Myanmar migrant workers trying to get home, Moe Pwint said.
The complicated repatriation process requires factory owners or landlords to accompany migrant workers to the police station to fill out forms, but a positive COVID-19 test result gets them sent into quarantine, she said.
â€œPeople can leave only after getting permission,â€ she said. â€œI was told to wait for about a week.â€
As she waits, Moe Pwint said she still must come up with 800 yuan a month for rent and 60 yuan daily for food.
â€˜No money, no foodâ€™
Chinese authorities have set up COVID-19 test centers outside Ruili and the border town of Wanding to test Myanmar nationals and isolate them in quarantine facilities, while Chinese nationals are monitored at home and in hotels, migrant workers said.
Myanmar migrant worker Tin Zar Nwe said she worked in a Chinese garment factory in Ruili for about a decade before returning to Muse on the Myanmar side of the border on Monday.
Before going back, she spent 28 days in a quarantine facility on the outskirts of the city, where Myanmar nationals were charged 60 yuan a day for food, with those who could not pay provided only with instant noodles.
â€œOn the day we arrived, we didn’t have anything to eat,â€ Tin Zar Nwe said.
â€œThe next day, they sent food and then after four or five days, they began collecting money. We told them we had no money. We have been out of work for four or five months. They said, â€˜No money, no food,â€™ and didnâ€™t feed us for two days.â€
Some migrant laborers who have legal documents to work in China did not want to return to Myanmar but were forced to do so, she said
â€œThose who do not want to return are kept in the quarantine center,â€ Tin Zar Nwe said. They were asked for money and if they didnâ€™t pay, they got yelled at and left without food.â€
Kyaw Soe, an unemployed laborer from central Myanmarâ€™s Mandalay region, said he was frustrated at having to undergo medical checks every other day.
â€œI couldnâ€™t care less how much it costs as long as I could get back home, [but] it doesn’t work here anymore,â€ Kyaw Soe said.
â€œI had to get my throat checked every day recently,â€ he said. â€œNow with the lockdown, I was checked last evening, and Iâ€™ve got to get checked again today.â€
No agreement on migrant workers
As if the frequent and mandatory health checks werenâ€™t bad enough, workers must pay heavy fees to get back to Myanmar.
Before the border lockdown, a worker had to pay smugglers about 350 yuan to get out of China and back home. Ferries that shuttle workers across the Shweli River between Ruili and Muse charge 300-600 yuan per person at the border.
Myanmar and China have not signed an agreement on migrant workers, so Myanmar workers usually come to a verbal understanding with their Chinese employers, and are often exploited, laborers said.
A Muse district administration official said the Chinese side reopened the Muse border gate on July 26 after Myanmar border authorities demanded the Chinese government allow its citizens to return legally.
Nearly 5,000 Myanmar migrant workers have returned home since July 26, according to the Muse Humanitarian Aid Network, which assists returnees. But on Tuesday, China again closed its land borders with Myanmar.
Ko Htay, chairman of the Muse Humanitarian Aid Network, said officials from the two countries need to renegotiate the return of Myanmar nationals through legal channels.
â€œI want to see people who wish to return come back in dignity with their personal belongings from the border gate,â€ he said. â€œRight now, they canâ€™t bring their belongings if they have to come back secretly. That’s what we are asking for â€” to make the transfers quickly.â€
A Muse district administration official said charity groups are also helping make arrangements for the workersâ€™ return home.
In July, Chinese border authorities in Ruili announced that they would provide 100 yuan to migrant workers without legal documents and those who could not afford to return home.
Laos repatriates workers
In Myanmarâ€™s neighbor Laos, where between 5,000 and 7,000 Myanmar laborers work in a special economic zone that serves mainly Chinese tourists, authorities are set to begin repatriating the migrants to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
RFAâ€™s Lao Service reported last week that hundreds of workers from Myanmar staged a protest on Aug. 6, demanding that Lao and authorities from the Bokeo Special Economic Zone (SEZ) allow them to return home or provide them with food and financial aid enabling them to remain in Laos. The construction businesses and casino venues that employ them were closed under policies to combat the pandemic.
After a meeting on Aug. 8, officials from Laos and Myanmar agreed on policies on repatriating the laborers, said an official from the Bokeo SEZ.
All Myanmar workers are required to register and be tested for the coronavirus before they can leave Laos. Those who test positive must remain in the country for treatment and will be provided with food, while others can return to Myanmar, said the official, who declined to be named in order to speak freely.
â€œThe process of repatriating Myanmar workers is continuing daily, following inspections,â€ he said on Wednesday.
Officials do not know the number of Myanmar workers still in the province or how many have been repatriated, he added.
The Lao government has sent many Myanmar workers home already via the Mom village port close to the special economic zone in Ton Pheung district, though the exact number is unknown, said an official from Bokeo provinceâ€™s labor department on Wednesday.
â€œThey send them back via the port at Mon village, where boats come to get them,â€ said the official, who declined to be named.
â€œWe donâ€™t know the details of how many they have already sent back and how many are still waiting,â€ the Bokeo official added.
Up to 250 Myanmar migrant workers can be repatriated daily if they do not test positive for the coronavirus and then meet with an SEZ officer and a Myanmar government representative, according to a report from Ton Pheung districtâ€™s Office of Information and Culture.
Reported by RFAâ€™s Myanmar and Lao Services. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.