In an area called "Kamtieng" of Chiang Mai, Thailand, each morning several hundred labourers, mostly from Burma, gather in the hope of getting a days work. Pick-up trucks stop to recruit the workers they need. Most are employed in construction and gardening. (Photo: John Hulme)
By LAWI WENG
The Irrawaddy News
Burma’s economic troubles have been a boon to human traffickers in recent months, keeping them busy at a time of year when wet conditions traditionally slow the flow of migrants across the border into Thailand.
A source who is involved in smuggling migrant workers from Burma to Thailand estimated that about 300 Burmese migrants are illegally transported to Bangkok each day from border areas such as Mae Sot, Three Pagodas Pass, Mae Sai and Ranong.
The most popular crossing point is Mae Sot, which is separated from the neighboring Burmese town of Myawaddy by the Moei River. Burmese routinely cross the river, either over the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge, which links the two towns, or on inflated inner tubes.
According to the source, who is based in Mae Sot, about 150 people are smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok every day.
Three Pagodas Pass, near the Thai town of Sangkhlaburi, is another major point of entry, with around 60 Burmese migrants leaving the area for Bangkok daily, according to local businessman Nai Lawi Mon.
Some local observers suggested that the steady influx was due to the impact of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into Burma’s largely agricultural Irrawaddy delta on May 2-3, destroying cropland and leaving many farmers without any means of making a living.
“Normally, very few people come to Thailand during the rainy season,” said Nai Lawi Mon. “But this year we are seeing more and more people coming.”
Cyclone Nargis hit Burma at a time when inflation and unemployment were already at their highest levels in years, forcing a growing number of Burmese to flee to neighboring countries in search of work.
It is estimated that there are more than a million Burmese migrants living and working in Thailand, of whom around 500,000 are registered with the Thai Ministry of Labor.
The perils of their journey were highlighted in April, when 54 Burmese migrants suffocated to death while being transported in a container truck from Ranong, near the Burmese border town of Kawthaung, to the Thai resort island of Phuket.
Although the tragedy prompted officials to step up efforts to stem the tide of illegal migrants into Thailand, Burmese continue to make the trip in a desperate bid to find jobs to support themselves and their families.
Many end up in Mahachai, home to the highest concentration of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Located a short distance from Bangkok, Mahachai attracts thousands of Burmese with low-paying jobs in the fish processing industry that are shunned by most Thais.
Mi Wot arrived in Mahachai a week ago and is still looking for work. She said she paid 460,000 kyat (US $383) for the trip. She made the journey, her first into Thailand, with ten other people, hiding in the back of a truck under a tarpaulin for three nights. The trip took so long, she explained, because of the numerous checkpoints along the way.
While Thai efforts seem to be doing little to prevent illegal migration into the country, the Burmese authorities have been carrying out a crackdown on their side of the border that appears to be having some effect, at least for now.
According to Maung Tu, a local businessman in Kawthaung, the human traffic into the neighboring Thai province of Ranong has slowed perceptibly in recent weeks.
Normally, several hundred people cross into Thailand each day; at the moment, the flow has been reduced to a trickle of around 30-50 people a day, according to sources in the area. Similar numbers have been reported in Mae Sai, near the Burmese town of Tachilek.
Meanwhile, the cost of smuggling migrants from Mae Sot to Bangkok has increased by about 2,000 Baht ($58) recently. It now costs 14,000 Baht ($412) make the trip to the Thai capital, sources said.