By Nora McGann
Many members of the Rohingya Muslim minority — a long-repressed and impoverished group of stateless people — have fled their homes in the Burmese state of Rakhine to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user No_Direction_Home)
In 2011, Burma — also called Myanmar, the name preferred by the former military government of this resources-rich Southeast Asian country — rejoined the international community, carrying with it a long history of closed borders, chronic under-development, and oppressive military rule. Following the first multi-party election held since 1990 in November 2010, the ruling junta handed power to current President Thein Sein in March 2011. President Sein, who previously served as a general and then prime minister under the military regime, has subsequently ushered in reform. While change has been slow to trickle down to the Burmese population, Burma's economic, social, and political isolation has come to an end.
Its newly reopened borders have seemingly had a small impact on outflows, primarily driven by Burma's continuing lack of opportunity, deep-rooted ethnic, religious, and other forms of violence, and an infrastructure taxed by natural disasters.
There has been speculation whether the recent political détente would affect Burmese labor migration, which is almost exclusively to neighboring Thailand. But the labor migration patterns are likely to remain the same at least in the short term, as most of Burma’s major economic reforms have not significantly altered the daily lives of the Burmese.
Background: Burma Then and Now
Between 1962 and 2010, Burma was ruled by two military regimes. Allegations of human-rights abuses led the United States, the European Union, Canada, and a few countries in the Asia-Pacific to impose a variety of economic sanctions throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Burma's isolation continued during that time: trade and investment were limited, foreign travel was nearly banned, few tourists were allowed to enter, and the population remained impoverished.
During his March 2011 inauguration speech, President Sein promised to bring about reforms to improve Burmese living conditions — a pledge attempted, albeit with somewhat limited success. In a gesture of political openness, the president met with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democratic National League for Democracy (NLD). He has also invited exiled activists to return to Burma without punishment and has released many political prisoners.
Suu Kyi was released in November 2010 after spending most of the past two decades under house arrest for political dissent. Suu Kyi and NLD candidates were allowed to run in the April 2012 by-elections, winning the vast majority of parliamentary seats. Although some international observers reported that the elections did not meet the four criteria outlined by the United Nations (free, fair, transparent, and inclusive), it was politically significant that the opposition participated, as opposition candidates had previously refused to run in the 2010 election in protest against restrictive election laws.
The government is also making efforts to improve the economy. It adopted the National Rural Development and Poverty Reduction Plan (2011-15), which is intended to reduce the poverty rate from 26 percent to 16 percent by 2015. Economic reforms include making foreign investment easier and switching to a floating exchange rate. This is an important step toward macroeconomic stability, and results from these economic reforms may prove to be substantial. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that real GDP growth in Burma may increase to more than 6 percent for fiscal year 2012/13, compared to an average of about 5 percent in the past five years.
In addition, new parliament members have breached a number of delicate issues, including the question of citizenship for the long-repressed Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
Despite some government efforts, ethnic and religious tensions largely remain unresolved, and violent clashes continue to displace a significant number of Burmese. Decades-long issues regarding citizenship and inclusion of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities remain an open question for the "new" Burma in its transition.
Prior to the reopening of Burma to the world, Burmese primarily emigrated in response to various economic, social, and political tensions. Flows from Burma were — and still are — mixed and include stateless persons, refugees, asylum seekers, labor migrants, and trafficking victims.
Labor Migration to Thailand
A significant number of Burmese migrants are in search of employment abroad, primarily in Thailand, which is a newly industrialized economy and one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia. Migrant workers mostly hold low-skilled jobs, especially in fishing and seafood processing, construction, clothing factories, and domestic services. There are currently 2.5 million to 3 million foreign-born workers in Thailand, and many labor experts and media report that there are an estimated 1 million to 2 million Burmese migrant workers.
The pull to Thailand — whose population is just under 70 million — is due to its geographic proximity to Burma, large supply of low-skilled jobs, and relatively lax migration policies. Thailand's need for migrant workers began in the 1980s when the country moved from an agricultural-based economy to an export-oriented one. As more Thais left rural areas for cities and increased their skill levels, low-skilled migrants began filling the resulting gaps in the labor force. By the early 1990s, Thailand had moved from being a net exporter to a net importer of migrants, and in 1992 the government began registering migrant workers.
The push and pull factors that have characterized this labor migration pattern still exist despite recent developments at the national level. Almost one-third of Burma's population continues to live below the poverty line (2012 estimate) as compared to 8 percent in Thailand (2009 estimate). GDP per capita in 2012 was $1,400 in Burma compared to $10,000 in Thailand. Wages in Burma have remained stagnant, while in January 2013 Thailand passed a new legal daily minimum wage of 300 baht (approximately $10) — a further incentive to work in Thailand.
Over the past decade, the Thai government has adopted new legislation that directly affects labor migrants. Formal recognition of this labor migration flow occurred in 2003 when Burma and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which is still in effect. The purpose of the MOU is two-fold: to promote formal procedures for employment and protection of Burmese workers in Thailand, and to prevent irregular migration. But there is significant evidence suggesting that most Burmese migrants are still entering illegally, calling into question the effectiveness of the MOU.
The Thai government subsequently adopted two additional methods for legalizing migrant workers. The first was a government program to recruit workers directly from Burma. But the details of this process remain unclear, and while the program still exists, it has not been used significantly.
The second method for legalizing migrant workers is the nationality verification (NV) process, requiring workers to present identity documents that the Burmese government issues at eight registration centers throughout the country. Once verified, the worker receives a temporary passport, a certificate of identity, a visa to remain in Thailand for two years, and a change of work status to legal. Migrant workers also obtain other benefits, including social security and work accident compensation. Only adult workers are eligible for regularization, even though the number of dependents of migrants has increased. By December 2012, some 744,000 migrant workers had gone through the NV process.
The NV program's first deadline to register was February 2010. But the deadline has been extended numerous times, the latest extension coming in mid-January 2013 after the last deadline of December 14, 2012 passed. Those who do not register during the new four-month extension may be at risk of deportation if the deadline is not extended again, although Burmese officials in Thailand have indicated that they will petition for extra time. The 120-day grace period is open to unauthorized Burmese migrants living and working in Thailand and their children under 15 (this also applied to Lao and Cambodian migrants).
Thai authorities have attempted to streamline the process by setting up "One Stop Service Centers" (OSCCs) for employers who have submitted the relevant documentation to provincial employment offices. OSCCs were expected to open in mid-February and are located throughout the country.
Those who are skeptical of the process are concerned that the new rules still allow for exploitation of foreign workers. In addition, many activists report that the NV process is flawed and that many unregistered Burmese workers are actually not eligible for verification.
The reasons for not registering are two-fold: first, registering is expensive. Beyond the official associated costs, there have been numerous allegations of corruption, with brokers along the border reportedly charging several times the price for visas.
A second reason for not registering is that the Burmese government does not recognize all ethnic groups, such as Muslim Rohingya. These groups have been denied citizenship for decades, thus making their registration in Thailand impossible.
The recent stalling and eventual extension of the deadline for the NV process by the Thai government does not seem to be motivated by the political, economic, and social reforms taking place in Burma. The NV process existed prior to the political opening and there were multiple extensions before 2011.
Forced Migration and Other Humanitarian Concerns
Protracted Violent Conflicts and Government Responses
Burma's protracted ethnic and religious conflicts and vulnerability to natural disasters are two significant factors responsible for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Burmese during the past decade. The conflicts are multipronged and complex, and it is unlikely that a new government will be able to promptly put an end to militarization and prevent further conflict-induced displacement.
Many point to the Buddhist majority/Muslim minority dynamic as one of the main contributing factors to ongoing tensions, in addition to the new government's attempts to expand the command structure of the Tatmadaw (national armed forces) into non-state armed groups' territories — many of which are driven by regional interests in resource extraction.
The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They have been denied Burmese citizenship for decades. They are the victims of violent attacks and oppression at the hands of the Tatmadaw. Although other Muslim minorities peacefully coexist in communities across the country, the Rohingya are a particularly large group: The most recent UN estimates available report around 800,000 Rohingyas among Burma's population of 55 million. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the region over the past few decades, mainly seeking refuge in Bangladesh — where authorities there were accused of violently cracking down on these refugees in 2010 — as well as other neighboring countries.
Members of both the Buddhist majority and Muslim minorities have been accused of committing violent acts against each other, including the burning of monasteries in Muslim-majority areas and mosques in Buddhist-majority regions.
Adding to the instability is the ongoing ethnic conflict in the Karen (or Kayin) state in the southeast (sharing a border with Thailand), although efforts are being made by the Burmese government to engage with the separatist Karen National Union.
Many displaced Burmese seek shelter in camps along the Thai border. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) estimated there were 83,000 registered refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) along the border as of December 2012. However, the real number is much higher as most arrivals since 2005 are unregistered. About 79 percent of the 83,000 were Karen, 10 percent Karenni, and the remaining percentage comprised of multiple ethnicities. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is currently assisting some 239,000 persons affected by displacement in the nation's southeastern region.
More recently, some 75,000 people fled their homes in the northern Kachin state after fighting began between insurgents and the Tatmadaw. The violent conflict has drawn international attention. In 2011, President Sein launched a reconciliation process — involving ceasefire agreements, political dialogue, and a meeting to bring together representatives of all ethnic groups — in attempt to bring an end to the violence. However, violent attacks have seemingly intensified throughout the country.
In addition, President Sein has proposed to oust Muslims from the country — sparking international controversy. He told a visiting UN delegation in July 2012 that Muslims must provide proof of residence for three generations before they would be allowed Burmese citizenship. Those who could not do so would be considered a “threat to the peace of the nation” and would be sent to camps and deported. More recently, President Sein has suggested that he would look into addressing the situation and reportedly ordered a commission of inquiry to produce a report within an undetermined timeframe.
Natural Disasters, Refugee Resettlement
With regard to natural disaster-induced migration, the cyclone Nargis hit the country in May 2008, killing more than 140,000 people and severely affecting more than 2 million others. In October 2010, cyclone Giri hit the western coastal state of Rakhine, displacing more than 71,000 people and destroying more than 14,000 homes. A strong earthquake hit the southern part of the Shan State, near the Thai and Lao borders, in March 2011.
The country's weak infrastructure and severe lack of provisions and planning have left — and continue to leave — large swathes of the population without protection and unprepared to deal with possible future natural disasters.
Large-scale resettlement of Burmese refugees displaced by violent conflict or natural disasters began in 2005, and since that year UNHCR has referred 103,333 refugees from Burma for resettlement. Of them, nearly 58,000 have been resettled, mainly in the United States, Australia, Canada, and other countries.
The international community has reacted positively to Burma's transition from authoritative regime to civilian (or quasi-civilian) government; however, ethnic and religious and other forms of violence, discrimination, and exposure to and unpreparedness for harsh climatic events will likely continue to disrupt the lives of many Burmese in the absence of substantial and viable shifts in policy.
In the meantime, Burma has and will likely continue to increase engagement with the international community and to liberalize its economy. Many international actors share optimistic views of the medium-term benefits for the Burmese economy. The symbolic openness in many of President Sein's gestures — especially releasing many political prisoners and engaging with pro-democratic party leader Suu Kyi — is also not to be undervalued.
Beyond these high-level changes, however, the government reforms have not improved the daily lives of the Burmese people, and will likely not affect Burmese migration flows, at least in the short term. Any changes in labor migration flows to and from Burma in the short term will likely be due to migration legislation in Thailand, especially if the upcoming April registration deadline for unauthorized immigrants is not extended.
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