Trafficked in Thailand: The Results of Poverty in Myanmar


MYANMAR and THAILAND —  Poverty in Myanmar, formerly Burma, generates the conditions for slavery. Many Burmese are forced to migrate out of desperation, seeking to escape poor conditions at home and support their families. Hoping for a new life, Burmese men and women are trafficked in Thailand, exploited by traffickers that sell them into forced labor. 

Half of the two million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are there illegally.

This has allowed their enslavement into the Thai fishing industry and elsewhere to go undetected. Most traffickers prey on the vulnerable, namely young migrant workers. Potential migrant workers pay large fees to traffickers who promise to get them out of Myanmar and secure well-paid jobs for them in Thailand. These small-scale efforts are how many men, women, and children are trafficked into Thailand’s fishing industry.

Burmese migrants are sold into slave labor, physically abused, and left hungry.

Those living in rural poverty in Myanmar are attracted to Thailand because of its relative prosperity. Traffickers lure Burmese families with false promises of work and good wages. Weighing this economic opportunity against what little is available in the impoverished regions of Myanmar, many Burmese people choose to illegally migrate with the trafficker. The recent migrants are then trapped on boats under threats of violence and debt bondage. The International Justice Mission discovered that 76.2% of those working on Thai fishing boats accrued debt before beginning work, demonstrating how traffickers use lies, threats, and debt creation to enslave Burmese migrants.

The root cause of these conditions is poverty back home.

About one in four people in Myanmar are poor. The 2017 Myanmar Living Conditions Survey (MLCS) reveals that 24.8% of the population is living in poverty. Poverty, or being on the edge of poverty, leads many Burmese people to seek employment in Thailand and take risks out of desperation.

Geography determines the socioeconomic fate of families.

Poverty in Myanmar has a strong correlation with location. According to the MLCS, “The number of poor people is 6.7 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas.” Poorer households are also more likely to have more children, with economic constraints preventing them from securing adequate education for their children. Unable to pursue a more lucrative livelihood and with limited options, many choose to illegally immigrate to Thailand as a means to support their families.

Burmese Refugees Lack Refugee Status in Thailand.

According to Emma Brand, a student that studied human trafficking in Thailand, Burmese people are at a legal disadvantage because Thailand does not regard them as refugees even though they are escaping ethnic conflict and extreme poverty. The Thai government does not use the word “refugee.” If it did, Thailand would be forced to acknowledge the regulations set by the United Nations Refugee Convention (UNRC). This makes Burmese refugees susceptible to trafficking because of their lack of status and papers.

The U.N. runs camps on the Burmese and Thai border, but the conditions are far from ideal, Brand explains. “The lack of educational opportunities for refugee children leave few options for legal employment if or when they leave the camp. Because Thailand did not ratify the UNRC, obtaining refugee status in Thailand does not require the Thai government to provide work papers that would allow for employment. If a refugee leaves the camp in search of work and is subsequently caught, they are sent back to their home country for violating the terms of their refugee status.” 96,777 people live in nine of these camps.

“Both young women and men leave the camps in their early teen years to supplement the little income their parents might also be making,” Brand continued. “Some will move into the cities and work under dangerous conditions, often in the construction, fishing, or sex industries. The migrants earn little to nothing in these fields and have minimal control over their livelihood. They are in enormous debt to their bosses, who often help them falsify work documents in exchange for their labor, becoming trapped in a cycle of exploitation.” Many refugees move to cities such as Bangkok, Chiangmai, and Phuket. Since it is by the water, Phuket is where Burmese refugees can be trafficked into Thailand’s fishing industry.

“Becoming a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention would allow for greater United Nations intervention at the border,” Brand said. Increased collaboration with the Thai government and international governmental bodies would improve the standing of Burmese refugees. Despite the challenges, the World Bank Group’s economic and advisory support is working to improve the situation and prevent more Burmese people from being trafficked in Thailand.

Efforts from the World Bank Group offer hope.

Myanmar’s poor population was halved between 2005 and 2017. However, many regions are still vulnerable to poverty, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Bank Group’s targeted, research-backed relief approach to impoverished areas in Myanmar will mitigate the worst health and economic effects of the coronavirus as the country continues its transition into a more socially inclusive and opportunity-rich nation.

The World Bank plans to continue existing projects and send additional aid to Myanmar. These efforts aim to improve public health, “disease surveillance,” and the operation of the private sector, sustaining jobs. If employment and economic opportunities are readily available in Myanmar, there will be less incentive for illegal immigration. Thus, supporting Myanmar’s economic development will help prevent Burmese people from being trafficked in Thailand.

Poverty in Myanmar is the root cause of human trafficking. The World Bank Group is preventing this injustice by developing Myanmar’s economy. Raising awareness and finding preventative solutions to trafficking can save lives and offer hope to the hopeless.

Mia McKnight

Photo: Flickr


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