Thailand: Migrants plead for vaccines as COVID takes lives, jobs

Migrant workers living on the Thai-Myanmar border say latest COVID-19 surge is putting their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy.

Thai authorities have closed factories and sealed off migrant worker quarters amid a surge of infections driven by the Delta variant [File: Sakchai Lalit/ AP]

Bangkok, Thailand – When the first COVID-19 case was detected in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in April last year, *Hnin Hnin, was able to keep her school for migrant children open, spending her mornings as she usually did, drawing up word games on a large whiteboard as her five-year-old pupils looked on.

Infections and deaths at the time remained in the single digits, and Hnin Hnin, a teacher from Myanmar, was cautiously optimistic that the pandemic would end soon. Her school, which runs on aid from a local charity, received ample donations of food, hygiene kits and masks.

But one year later, an outbreak driven by the highly contagious Delta variant has led to spiralling infections at factories in the area, overwhelming hospitals and prompting a prolonged lockdown of the provinces on the Thai-Myanmar border and forcing Hnin Hnin’s school to close.

“Lots of people started dying,” she told Al Jazeera. “Lots of my friends died. It spread very quickly and now many areas in Mae Sot are infected.”

The virus hit particularly close to home when Hnin Hnin’s friend and her fellow teacher fell ill due to COVID-19 in July. Her friend had tried to go to hospital when her condition deteriorated but was turned away – they said they did not have a bed for her. When she made attempts to call for aid to reach her house, no one came.

“She received no help from the Thai government,” Hnin Hnin said, adding that paramedics only respond to calls from Thai nationals. Hnin Hnin’s friend eventually died at home at the end of July.

“She was just one of many of my friends who got sick.”

‘The real solution’

The latest wave has shaken Thailand, pushing COVID-19 cases to almost 1.3 million with more than 13,000 recorded deaths. Thailand is reporting at least 15,000 cases a day with an average of about 175 daily deaths – in contrast to last year’s figures when daily cases were few and deaths rare.

As COVID-19 surges, organisations working on the border say that the thousands of migrants and more than 90,000 refugees there are facing a range of challenges such as the lack of access to coronavirus-related healthcare. And as factories and places of work close once again, their livelihoods are also in jeopardy, creating a ripple effect on many migrants’ mental health, experts say.

Hnin Hnin now faces the possibility of closing her school for many months.

“With the lockdown, people started running out of jobs and money,” Hin Hin told Al Jazeera. “At first we relied on donated money, but it is running out.”

Hnin Hnin used to make approximately 3,000 Thai baht ($100) per month. But now, she can barely afford enough food. She feels a responsibility to her students, worries about their safety, hoping they do not fall into trouble while not in class.

“I really hope migrant schools will be able to open soon,” she said. “Because lots of kids are now forced to work, or ending up on the streets.”

Thai border guards patrol at Myanmar border in Mae Sot, Thailand March 18, 2021 [File: Soe Zeya Tun/ Reuters]
Myanmar migrant workers register for testing at a COVID-19 clinic in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok, on January 10, 2021 [File: Lillian Suwanrumpha/ AFP]

Authorities in Mae Sot imposed COVID-19 restrictions in the area after cases surged at several factories in late June. That month, more than half the workers at three factories, numbering 452 people, were confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper. Following the factory outbreak, the governor of the region ordered the three factories shut.

Then in July, local authorities implemented a nighttime curfew for the surrounding Tak province, banning people from leaving their homes after 8pm. The Post also reported that migrant workers were not allowed to move between districts unless they had permits from the Mae Sot district chief.

On top of the increased restrictions, Hnin Hnin’s community has had very little access to vaccines, leaving them exposed to the virus. As the Thais around her started becoming inoculated, she wondered why her entire community was being left out.

Al Jazeera made multiple requests to government spokespeople on the lack of vaccine access for migrants on the border. None of the officials responded.

“Lockdowns control COVID-19, but migrants do not receive any financial assistance to weather those times when they lose their income. Vaccines are the real solution,” said Braham Press, the director of MAP Foundation, an NGO that seeks to empower migrant communities from Myanmar living and working in Thailand. “Yet, for migrants, getting any vaccine is questionable. A handful of migrants have had employers provide vaccination, but most have had to pay service fees.”

Without adequate protection and income, Brahm says the current situation is taking a toll on migrants’ mental health. He adds that many migrant workers have been going into debt trying to survive the economic fallout from previous waves.

‘Worried for my family’

Thailand is a country of origin, destination, and transit for migrant populations in Southeast Asia. The Kingdom shares four land borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, and today, an estimated four to five million migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and other regional nations are working in Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration. Refugees and displaced people are also continuously moving across the Myanmar border searching for safety. The February 1 coup in Myanmar brought a new wave of people fleeing the country.

As COVID-19 cases increase, the nine camps along the border are also facing lockdowns. This comes with restrictions on movement which have affected the flow of resources such as food and medicine.

*Lily, a 23-year-old refugee who is now working in Mae Sot, says she is concerned for her family who remain in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp she grew up in.

“I am so worried for my family. I want them to have access to vaccines because they are old and my mom suffers from a chronic illness,” Lilly said. “She is not in good health. My parents cannot go to work, and sometimes they don’t have money to buy food. I send money whenever I can.”

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says migrants and refugees must be fully included in the government’s COVID-19 response, including treatments for the disease and its vaccine distribution plan.

“COVID-19 impacts everyone and POCs (people of concern) in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting and transmitting the virus as local populations,” said Morgane Roussel Hemery, an associate External Relations Officer at UNHCR. “The POCs can be particularly vulnerable as a result of challenges they may face meeting basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19 and obtaining hygiene items or medical support.”

In June, Thai authorities closed and sealed off more than 600 construction camps in Bangkok where more than 80,000 migrant workers lived. They were not allowed to leave their own homes and were effectively imprisoned. Government officials cited safety concerns after COVID-19 clusters were found in migrant communities.

“Most migrants are paid a daily wage and if they do not work they do not get paid. For some who are in lockdown in the factory compound, they may receive support with some food,” said Sally Thompson, the executive director of The Border Consortium, a group that provides food, shelter and other forms of support to refugees from Myanmar. “For others who live outside the compound it is harder and if they have dependents to take care of, the burden increases.”

The decision to segregate huge groups of migrants has resulted in widespread distrust of the authorities, and many migrant workers say they feel that they are continuously being mistreated by the Thai state.

In Mae Sot, Hnin Hnin worries about her students’ lack of access to schooling and fears that more people could perish without vaccines and access to healthcare.

“The problem is that if you are Thai, you can get the vaccines for free,” she said.

“For the migrants, we cannot get it even if we pay money. I think that some people will die if they do not have any access to healthcare.”

Additional reporting by Linn Let Arkar.

All migrant names have been changed to protect their identity for privacy and security concerns.

Source: Al Jazeera