Churn of migrants in Thai border town feeds fishing industry

Burmese worker Thaung Sen, 61, has been working in Ranong's fishing industry in the past 20 years. The former fisherman is now a boat caretaker. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Burmese worker Thaung Sen, 61, has been working in Ranong's fishing industry in the past 20 years. The former fisherman is now a boat caretaker. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Mr Abul Nasir, 61, a Muslim Rohingya community leader in Ranong, southern Thailand. In the background are Rohingya children who come to take religious classes at a school he runs in the compound of his home. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
The jetty at Ranong, a border town in southern Thailand, is bustling with activity. Ranong is a major transit point for Burmese migrants seeking jobs. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

A downpour has bathed the riverside market in darkness but its floor glistens with Thai marine life. Piles of mackerel, threadfin, snapper and squid freshly scooped up from the Andaman Sea are sorted on the concrete floor as buyers hover nearby.

At the edge of the hall, brawny workers shove barrels filed with ice and fish towards waiting trucks. When addressed in Thai, they respond with blank looks.

This is Ranong, a southern fishing port town just 40 minutes by boat from Myanmar. Thailand is one of the world's top fish exporters, and shipped out over 240 billion baht of fish and fishery products last year (2012).

Ranong is also a major entry point for Burmese nationals in search of higher paying jobs across the Kraburi River, which separates the two countries.

Ms Po Po, the director of southern-Thailand-based Foundation for Education and Development which aids Burmese workers, estimates that about 500 Myanmar nationals cross the border daily here. Many are undocumented, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by employers as well as human traffickers.

Burmese form the backbone of the seafood industry here, manning fishing trawlers, sorting fish at the market, or processing seafood in the factories. Their presence is particularly heavy in the district near the jetty, where Burmese signs stand alongside Thai ones, and women's faces are smeared with the Burmese thanaka cosmetic paste.

Like most border towns, it sees a constant churn of migrants, who occupy the unpopular and lower paid jobs. Mr Surintr Losong, president of the Fisheries Association of Ranong, says: "It is not hard to find workers, the Burmese come and go."

The transient nature of the population makes it harder for workers to form firm bonds.

Ranong-based worker Thaung Sen, 61, admits that he does not know any fellow Burmese well, despite working in the fishing industry there for 20 years. "They don't stay for long, usually about one month," he says.

Those that put their roots down in the community don't have it that much easier. They include Mr Abul Nasir, 53, a community leader among the Rohingya in Ranong.

The Muslim Rohingya are rejected as illegal immigrants by the Myanmar government and have been leaving the country in droves to escape grim conditions back home.

The former merchant left Myanmar some 20 years ago, and has since acquired residency status in Thailand. He runs a free religious school for fellow Rohingya in his home just 10 minutes from the jetty. Mr Nasir knows of about 50 Rohingya families in Ranong; many eke out a mere 100 to 200 baht a day doing small repairs or peddling roti, a flatbread.

Mr Nasir himself earns about 6,000 baht (S$198) a month repairing old fishing nets and trading in other used goods, but there are months he cannot make enough to cover the expenses for his wife and three children.

"I borrow money from friends and relatives," he says. "Some weeks, we cannot afford meat."

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