Thailand’s large migrant population is facing racist backlash as the country works to contain a new outbreak of COVID-19 tied to a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province, near Bangkok, where a significant portion of the country’s migrants from Myanmar live.
Since mid-December, Thailand has reported over 2,000 cases linked to a new outbreak of COVID-19 detected at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon province. The country had previously seen a total of only around 4,300 COVID-19 cases between January and December.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a statement on December 22 that illegal migrants were responsible for the outbreak and “have brought much grief to the country.” The prime minister’s comments, a surge in online hate speech against migrants and a series of government restrictions that only apply to migrants have prompted objections from migrant advocates.
After the first confirmed cases, the government immediately shut down the market in Samut Sakhon and placed over 4,000 people in isolation. The government began testing over 40,000 people after months of almost no local transmissions. The new outbreak has spread to nearly 50 of Thailand’s 77 provinces though most cases have so far been traced to Samut Sakhon.
Outbreak sees rash of misplaced racism
Some in Thailand have taken to social media to voice their frustration and targeted migrants.
“Shoot all of them down since they don’t follow the rules,” wrote one Thai on a Facebook post regarding Myanmar migrants leaving Samut Sakhon.
“Wherever you see Myanmar people, shoot them down,” wrote another Thai commenter on YouTube.
The group Social Media Monitoring for Peace has called attention to the potential impact of such hate speech.
“The comments included racist language aimed at triggering discrimination and promoting nationalism,” group representative Saijai Liangpunsakul, also a leader at Myanmar’s community tech hub Phandeeyar, told Reuters. “We’re concerned that online discrimination could translate into further discrimination and even lead to real-world violence.”
Prior to COVID-19, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that there were 4-5 million migrants working in Thailand, meaning that potentially one in 10 workers in Thailand is a migrant. The average daily wage for a migrant worker in Samut Sakhon is only around US$10 and many take on large debts associated with work placements or other needs.
Many groups in Thailand, including the Labour Protection Network, MAP Foundation and the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), have spoken out about the growing racism targeting migrants. Advocates have called for authorities to ensure that migrants have access to free health care for COVID-19 and will not be punished based on their immigration status, among other measures.
The outbreak “is a product of the heightened risks faced by migrants due to their precarious working conditions and marginalization from wider Thai society” according to the MMN, adding that the outbreak “brings into sharp focus the disproportionate impact that the pandemic is having on the livelihood and health of Thailand’s much maligned migrant workers.”
The group said the country’s seafood industry depends on low paid migrant workers living in conditions where social distancing and hygiene measures are largely impossible and that a recent survey of migrants found many reports of employers refusing to impose measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Thailand’s new restrictions target migrants
Thailand’s national government has left much of the response to the new outbreak to provincial authorities, some of whom have issued movement restrictions that apply only to migrants. In Chumphon province, a 12-hour curfew was imposed only for migrants, drawing criticism from Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson. In Samut Prakan province, migrants have been temporarily barred from specific places like temples.
“Our judgement is that silent carriers have been present in Thailand,” Sein Htay of the Yangon-based Migrant Worker Rights Network, told Reuters.
Officials in Nonthaburi province have locked down one seven-storey building that is primarily home to migrants, prohibiting anyone from leaving or entering without permission.
Brahm Press, director of Chiang Mai-based MAP Foundation, told Deutsche Welle that the government’s overemphasis on security is counterproductive. “There was no consultation or prior announcement. Migrants woke up one day and had barbed wire surrounding their compound,” he said. “I don’t think they would have done that with [Thai] workers in a Thai factory. Not only is it discriminatory, it is derogatory.”
Taweesilp Witsanuyotin, a representative of Thailand’s COVID-19 response center, said the current strategy can limit new cases to a maximum of about 1,000 per day. Given the country’s robust health care system, this may be a manageable number; so far, Thailand has recorded just over 60 deaths from COVID-19.
Migrants see little support but add billions of dollars to struggling Thai economy
Migrant labor contributes billions of dollars to the Thai economy, to say nothing of their essential role in the country’s economic model. Though the government reported that at least 310,000 migrant workers left the country from March to June, many more remained and have had little access to income or support, especially those without legal documentation. Migrants were often excluded from a government cash relief program because they had not contributed enough to the country’s social security system, among other reasons.
Prayuth’s recent comments drew criticism from some in the government, including Move Forward party parliamentarian Viroj Lakkanadisorn, who said that employers of undocumented migrants may send workers home if they feel aggressively pressured, potentially worsening the spread of the outbreak.
“Migrant workers help drive our economy. We rely on their workforce. Thai people won’t take the jobs they are doing,” said Taweesilp. “We are brothers and sisters, whether they are legal or not.”
Among those speaking out in support of migrants is the governor of Samut Sakhon, Veerasak Vijitsaengsri.
But few in the government have acknowledged the vital role that migrant workers play in Thailand’s economy.
A number of Thai citizens also sparked a COVID-19 scare weeks earlier when they returned from Myanmar but did not undergo mandatory quarantine. In response, the Thai military has fortified some areas along its western border, though much of the 1,500-mile border is jungle along rivers like the Salween and the Moei. Since the most recent outbreak, the military has reinforced a total of 55 sites along the border.
New government plan will ensure more migrants are registered, documented
The government has announced a plan to allow currently undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia to legally obtain work permits. To register, workers must have the backing of an employer and complete health screenings, at a reported cost of around US$240. The work permits would be valid until February 2023.
According to civil society network the Migrant Working Group, 600-800,000 people who were working as documented migrant workers have lost their legal status during the pandemic, as borders and businesses have closed, and may be able to take advantage of the new program.
But the cabinet resolution also tells authorities to “check, crack down on, arrest and prosecute” undocumented migrant workers, though many may still be unable to obtain documents. Prior to the pandemic, around half of Thailand’s migrants were undocumented, according to the IOM.
As for Thailand’s recent protests and new pro-democracy movement, organizers had already declared a “rest” until the new year on December 14, prior to the fresh COVID-19 outbreak. However, the government has also imposed tighter restrictions, effectively banning protests.
“There’s a big difference between ‘getting a rest’ and ‘getting weak’,” movement organizer Attapon Buapat told South China Morning Post. “This year’s fight is a prologue towards a true systemic change, and we only just got started.”
Over a dozen people were arrested in Bangkok on December 31 after a force of at least 300 riot police confronted them for selling shrimp as part of a broader effort to support seafood producers impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.