Coronavirus pandemic

Migrant worker exodus from Thailand raises fears

Myanmar nationals with masks at the immigration post in Myawaddy near the Thai border, on March 23, 2020.
Myanmar nationals with masks at the immigration post in Myawaddy near the Thai border, on March 23, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

Tens of thousands of jobless migrant workers from Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have been scrambling to leave Thailand since shops and retail outlets were shuttered in its major cities to contain the coronavirus pandemic, raising fears of a fresh wave of cross-border infections.

Thailand, which had registered 721 Covid-19 cases as of yesterday, ordered land border checkpoints closed at the weekend as part of increasingly tougher measures to curb the spread of the virus.

But the lockdown led to massive queues at Thailand's busiest overland crossings, with over a thousand workers waiting overnight on Sunday before the authorities reopened shuttered checkpoints yesterday to let them through.

In Thailand's Sa Kaeo province, close to 40,000 people crossed the border into Cambodia at the weekend. At the same time, 6,000 workers in Thailand's Tak province crossed the Mae Sot checkpoint into Myanmar's Myawaddy town, leaving behind over 1,000 more workers waiting overnight for an extension of the closure deadline.

South-east Asia's second-largest economy hosts over three million migrant workers, largely from neighbouring countries.

Wary of the risks posed by swarms of workers returning home before the regional New Year celebrations in mid-April, the authorities in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand had already shelved the festivities, or even the public holiday altogether.

But Bangkok's attempt to contain the outbreak last week by temporarily banning sit-in dining and by shuttering malls and entertainment outlets displaced low-wage Thai and migrant workers, who made a beeline for the interprovincial buses and the border.

"If I remain here, I can't even afford basic things like food. If I go home, at least I have some rice to eat," Ms Orn See, a restaurant worker from Laos, told Thai channel Amarin TV.

Bangkok Governor Aswin Khwanmuang pleaded with the people yesterday to stay put and not leave the Thai capital.


But with similar shutdowns of public gathering places imposed in Bangkok's vicinity and other big Thai provinces like Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Nakhon Ratcha-sima, job options for daily-rated workers have shrunk drastically.

Beyond the Thai border, officials were struggling to screen returnees and arrange their onward journey back to their home towns.

Cambodia has 86 confirmed coronavirus cases at this point.

While Laos and Myanmar have so far registered zero Covid-19 cases, Myanmar is waiting for the test results of 19 patients with suspicious symptoms. Results on another 187 have turned out negative.

Dr Stephan Paul Jost, the World Health Organisation's representative to Myanmar, told The Straits Times that Myanmar has enough test kits to ramp up testing. "You can't fight the virus if you don't know where it is," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2020, with the headline 'Migrant worker exodus from Thailand raises fears'. Subscribe