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Cyclone migrants face challenges

Cyclone survivors who migrated to Mae Sot in Thailand in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Seven months on, no dramatic upsurge has been reported Greg Lowe/IRIN
When Lynn Mon and his family arrived in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in June, they were penniless.

Cyclone Nargis had devastated their village in the Ayeyarwady Delta, destroying their home, farmland and livelihood, as well as killing 30 members of their family.

"We had to sell everything," he told IRIN, "our land, farming equipment and jewellery. All we had left was the clothes we were wearing.

"We are lucky to be alive, but now there are so many difficulties, so many problems," Lynn Mon said of his new life in Thailand.

As illegals, they face possible arrest and deportation.

There are no exact figures but in the seven months since Nargis struck, about 600 survivors have come to Mae Sot, according to local NGOs, although some have since returned to Myanmar.

To date, Back Pack Health Worker Team and the Burmese Woman's Union Emergency Assistance Team (EAT), two local NGOs in the area, have assisted about 500 Nargis survivors who have crossed the border.

"When people first arrived we gave them 1,500 baht [US$42.80], trained them how to sew, and helped them find jobs," Mar Mar Aye, the EAT coordinator, said.

Mar Mar Aye, coordinator, Burma Woman's Union Emergency Assistance Team, one of a number of people working with cyclone migrants in Mae Sot, Thailand 20081203
Photo: Greg Lowe/IRIN
Mar Mar Aye, the coordinator of the Burma Woman's Union Emergency Assistance Team, one of a number of people working with cyclone migrants in Mae Sot
About 60 percent of cyclone-affected people assisted by EAT have been granted legal working status by the Thai authorities, she said.

Most work around Mae Sot, 30 percent headed to Bangkok, while 20 people had returned home.

Mae Sot already has the largest Burmese population of any Thai town, estimated by aid workers at more than 80,000.

Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP), an NGO, estimates between 1.5 and two million Burmese live in Thailand, of whom 500,000 are legally registered.

With more than 50 large factories near Mae Sot, hundreds of smaller shop and house operations, and a large agricultural industry, Burmese migrant workers provide a constant source of cheap labour.

Thailand's Ministry of Labour sets the local minimum wage for Thais at just over $4.40 per day. Burmese with a migrant work permit are entitled to around $3.50 per day, but most receive $2 or less, legal or otherwise, said NGOs.

Expected influx unrealised

Earlier fears of a dramatic upsurge in migration in the wake of Nargis have proven unfounded, however.

Illegal migrants crossing the Moie River illegally into Thailand 200812033
Photo: Greg Lowe/IRIN
Migrants crossing the Moie River illegally into Thailand
Local aid workers told IRIN that while Cyclone Nargis boosted the flow of Burmese through the town, they were only a small proportion of the tens of thousands arriving in Mae Sot annually.

"It was recently reported that approximately 100 Nargis-affected people made their way to Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp," says Fred Ligon, director of the NGO World Education

"Those are not large numbers given the amount of people affected by Nargis," he said.

Only a minority of Burmese migrants are granted refugee status, as defined by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and allowed to officially enter the nearby refugee camps. According to UNHCR, there are 123,000 recognised refugees in Thailand.

Difficult to monitor

However, statistics on Burmese migrants arriving in Thailand are unreliable.

Thai Immigration reports issuing 1,500 entry stamps to Burmese coming through Mae Sot from the Burmese border town of Myawaddy each day, but only 1,000 exit stamps.

This means more than 180,000 Burmese officially drop off the immigration radar screen each year.

Mae Sot-Myawaddy is one of the most heavily policed points along the 1,800km Thai-Myanmar border, but at the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, people can be seen illegally crossing the Moie River on tractor inner tubes in plain view of Thai border guards.

Nearby is a bustling trade in small boats charging less than 50 cents per person to cross the river.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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