Coping with Covid-19: Indochina

Forced out of jobs, migrants face suspicion on return home

As the coronavirus cuts a swathe through Asia, The Straits Times bureaus report on how governments, hospitals and the man in the street are rising to the battle. In the fifth of a multi-part series, Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee looks at how Thailand's lockdown has sent thousands of its migrant workers across borders, potentially seeding new clusters of infection.

Mr Sai Tun Shwe, a freelance translator from Myanmar, waiting at Morchit bus station in Bangkok to take the coach to Mae Sot, from where he crossed over into Myanmar on March 23. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAI TUN SHWE
Migrant workers from Myanmar waiting at the Thai border to go home on March 24, after losing their jobs in Thailand due to lockdowns to contain the spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Sai Tun Shwe, a freelance translator from Myanmar, waiting at Morchit bus station in Bangkok to take the coach to Mae Sot, from where he crossed over into Myanmar on March 23. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAI TUN SHWE
Mr Sai Tun Shwe, a freelance translator from Myanmar, waiting at Morchit bus station in Bangkok to take the coach to Mae Sot, from where he crossed over into Myanmar on March 23. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAI TUN SHWE
A supermarket employee in Bangkok disinfecting trolleys. Supermarkets, pharmacies and banks in Thailand remain open amid a lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
People with their belongings lining up at the immigration post by the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in Mukdahan, waiting to cross into Laos on March 23. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE A supermarket employee in Bangkok disinfecting trolleys. Supermar
People with their belongings lining up at the immigration post by the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in Mukdahan, waiting to cross into Laos on March 23. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • Keeping his bags close to him and a mask tight around his face, Mr Sai Tun Shwe waded into the crowds at Bangkok's Mor Chit bus terminal two weeks ago to board a coach headed for the Myanmar border.

The 43-year-old freelance translator was nervous, despite paying 405 baht (S$18) for an extra ticket to make sure nobody sat beside him. Every other seat on the bus was filled.

Thailand, which had kept its doors open in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, was now struggling to contain the number of local transmission.

Jittery investors dumped so many stocks on the Thai bourse, they triggered circuit breakers twice over two days.

To get people to stay at home, Bangkok shuttered nightspots, malls and other shops in quick succession. Then it announced plans to close land borders.

Tens of thousands of newly jobless migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos surged home.

"I couldn't get any more work," Mr Sai Tun Shwe told The Straits Times. "The situation did not look likely to improve. And I didn't want to risk being away from my wife and two children in Myanmar."

He made it past Thailand's Mae Sot checkpoint on March 23. Harried Myanmar health officials stationed on the other side took his temperature and contact details, then let him proceed to the Kayin state capital of Hpa-An by himself.

The government wanted returnees to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days.

He went shopping at the market the very next day. "I thought maybe it was not so strict," he said.

A neighbour who spotted him called the village chief, who turned up at his house on March 25 to ask him to cooperate.

Mr Sai Tun Shwe has been mostly at home since, save for one occasion when he sneaked out to withdraw money from an ATM.

"I have no fever, no phlegm or cough, and I'm confident I don't have the disease," he said.


Regional infection rates have continued to spike since that precarious week. Thailand has now logged more than 2,400 coronavirus cases, the fourth-highest in South-east Asia, behind Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Infections have also spread to more than 60 of its 76 provinces.

Given that asymptomatic Covid-19 patients can still be dangerously infectious, it is hard to measure the actual fallout from the recent exodus of migrant workers from Bangkok.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 100,000 workers have returned home to Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

These migrants, who build houses, clean homes, as well as perform a variety of other jobs often on informal terms with little social protection, could not survive in Bangkok once the authorities abruptly pulled the plug on commercial life without offering any alternative income support.

Emerging cases have also raised concern. Barely one week after the closures in Bangkok, the northernmost Thai province of Chiang Rai announced that its latest infection involved a local resident who used to work at a bar in the upscale Bangkok neighbourhood of Thonglor.

He had headed home that fateful week and shared a half-day bus ride with dozens of other passengers before becoming feverish.

Myanmar, meanwhile, has uncovered at least two coronavirus cases involving its nationals who returned home from Thailand during that same chaotic period, raising fears the contagion might have spread among the thousands of cheek-by-jowl returnees trying to squeeze past the same checkpoints.

According to Myanmar's health and sports ministry, one patient crossed the Mae Sot checkpoint on March 23, and travelled to Yangon before developing a cough.

Another man entered Myanmar via Thailand's Mae Sai checkpoint in Chiang Rai on March 25, took a domestic flight to Mandalay city, and then travelled to Shan state.

After coughing and vomiting, he went to hospital on March 28.

"This is one situation where an unintended consequence of the public health measures to reduce the transmission may be causing additional transmission in other areas," Dr Patrick Duigan, IOM's regional migration health specialist, told The Straits Times.

"We haven't seen any report of migrant returnees in other areas leading to outbreaks in those locations, which is good… but we have seen in Thailand now that there are cases in many provinces, not just in Bangkok."


For sure, the sudden return of so many workers had caught their home countries off-guard.

Around 15,000 returning Cambodians passed through the checkpoint linking Thailand's Aranyaprathet and Cambodia's Poipet towns on the weekend of March 21 and 22 alone.

"We do not have enough capacity to monitor all of them. Neither do we have the ability to quarantine them all for 14 days," Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng was quoted as saying by the Voice of America.

Instead, the provincial authorities were tasked with instructing returnees to self-quarantine.

Myanmar, whose nationals form the bulk of some four million migrant workers in Thailand, had to tighten what was initially a home-quarantine system as the fear of imported infections from returning workers grew.

Its health and sports ministry declared the country at risk of developing a major outbreak. Since its first case on March 23, the number of infections has grown to 22.

Workers and officials interviewed detailed what could best be described as an often self-regulated system.

Mr Sai Tun Shwe, for example, shared vans with several other passengers when travelling from the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy to Hpa-an.

Officials told him that a healthcare worker would check on him during his quarantine, but no one did.

Another returnee, Mr Khun Maung Ngwe, took a bus from Myawaddy to his home in Shan state after crossing the border on March 26.

"I didn't wear a mask and neither did other passengers," the 33-year-old carpenter told The Straits Times.

In Myanmar's Mon state, village chief Nai Mon Saw Noal said the community had to draw on village administration funds to prepare a quarantine hall, and ask for donations to feed 20 returnees from Thailand and Singapore.

Another two migrants resisted quarantine and simply went into hiding.

The health ministry provided disinfectants, masks and gloves, he said, but healthcare staff who came daily to monitor the returnees' temperatures were so scared, they influenced local sentiment.

"They were afraid, and treated the migrants like they were already infected. The migrants were not happy about it," Mr Nai Mon Saw Noal said. "Even our volunteers became fearful when they looked at how the government health workers acted."

Reintegration is proving difficult for migrants amid such distrust.

Mr Thet Zaw Aung, 35, who left his job at a Bangkok petrol station, was shunned when he returned home to Mon state.

"They treated me like I had brought the virus from Thailand and did not want to talk to me," he said. "They looked down on us. I felt a bit sad."

Mr Sai Tun Shwe received a call from his mother-in-law asking him not to enter her village.

Then, he ran out of drinking water. "I asked the shop to deliver more, but they didn't after finding out I had come back from Thailand. In the end, I had to hail a passing water truck," he said.


Dr Duigan estimated that 3.5 million migrant workers from Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia remain in Thailand.

Given regional lockdowns, border closures, as well as cancellation of celebrations for the traditional new year in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand that starts next Monday, this year's seasonal mass migration through unofficial crossings is likely to be smaller.

To avoid inadvertently triggering another exodus, Thailand's labour ministry wants to allow workers to remain employed beyond the expiration of their work permits while borders are still sealed.

But a lot still depends on how much work is available, as lockdowns bring the regional economies to their knees.

According to the Asian Development Bank, Thailand is expected to see a full-year economic contraction this year, by 4.8 per cent.

Should Thailand choose to extend its current nationwide 10pm to 4am curfew, for example, even more businesses - and workers - could be hurt.

"If these measures are strengthened in terms of business shut-downs, we can expect that there may be additional movements," said Dr Duigan.

Dr Khin Khin Gyi, a Myanmar health ministry spokesman, said Naypyidaw is working closely with local communities to repurpose football stadiums, monasteries and schools as quarantine centres in preparation for more arrivals.

"If someone refuses quarantine, we will take action," she said.

For now, the remaining migrants should be encouraged to seek medical help or be able to isolate themselves if they show any symptoms of the virus, without fearing they would lose their jobs or incomes, said Dr Duigan.

"Migrants are a key population that must be included in any Covid-19 response," he said.

"If countries aren't considering migrants and aren't considering the impacts public health measures have and try to mitigate them, then the country's overall response to Covid-19 is not going to work."

Infections amid exodus


Bangkok and larger metropolitan area shut down entertainment spots, including nightclubs, cinemas and massage parlours. Thailand then has 212 cases of coronavirus infection.


Interior minister orders most border checkpoints closed.


Bangkok closes beauty salons, malls, golf courses and swimming pools. Restaurants are limited to takeaway services. Surrounding provinces follow suit. The interior ministry orders all border checkpoints closed by March 23. Bangkok's main Mor Chit bus terminal sees 80,000 passengers, according to Bangkok Post.


Thailand keeps checkpoints open to let migrant workers massing there return home. Late that day, Myanmar confirms its first two cases of infections, of Myanmar citizens returning from United States and Britain.


Thailand logs 827 cases of infection. Health officials say a 33-year-old Thai man who worked at a bar in Bangkok and went home over the weekend to the northern province of Chiang Rai has tested positive for coronavirus. At this point, about 60,000 migrant workers from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have left Thailand since businesses were forced to close, according to the Thai interior ministry.


Myanmar announces that its latest infected patient is a 44-year-old man who entered the country via the land border with Thailand on March 23, and then travelled to Yangon.


Another returnee tests positive for the virus. He is a 24-year-old Myanmar national who entered via a border checkpoint with Thailand on March 25, and then travelled to Shan state.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2020, with the headline Forced out of jobs, migrants face suspicion on return home. Subscribe