Migrant Workers Stream Home as Thailand’s Economy Goes into Covid-19 Lockdown

Bangkok – As Thailand curtails economic activity and begins to close its borders to limit the spread of the COVID-19, thousands of jobless migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are returning home. 

The announcement of wide-ranging business closures by Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang on 21 March and the subsequent Emergency Decree announced by the Thai Government on 26 March has also triggered a mass movement of Thai migrant workers from Bangkok to their home provinces. 

The movements come at a time when Thailand and its neighbours are encouraging people to stay at home and enforcing social distancing to contain the virus, and could have unintended consequences, according to IOM Regional Migration Health Specialist Dr. Patrick Duigan. 

“There is a risk that these returns could lead to the seeding of new clusters of the virus in areas of return, transmission among returnees during crowded buses and border crossings, and among those held in collective settings for quarantine,” he said. 

“Many of them come from rural communities in Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which are relatively unprepared for monitoring, testing or treating COVID-19 cases. Unlike the patterns from other countries where the majority of cases start in urban areas, in these three countries of return, rural areas may drive transmission,” he added. 

IOM is monitoring border movements in the region and providing assistance to the migrants and governments, despite limited resources. While official crossing points are increasingly closed, some returns continue via unofficial crossing points.  

Thailand’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus have included shutting down non-essential businesses across the country and limiting travel both within the country and between Thailand and other countries. 

Most Thai border checkpoints are now closed for people. An emergency decree bans entry to non-Thais, with the exception of drivers,  diplomats, shippers, pilots and others with explicit permission. 

At the Myanmar border, only Thai and Myanmar nationals have been allowed to cross the border since last weekend. On Monday and Tuesday over 6,200 migrants crossed into Myanmar from the Thai border town of Mae Sot.  

Over 400 of those migrants now are in a 14-day quarantine in Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the border. Myanmar’s Department of Labour has asked IOM for support with data collection, and helping authorities to meet immediate needs on return, including shelter, food, non-food relief items, health support and risk communication. 

In Poipet on the Thai-Cambodian border, IOM worked through last weekend to help overstretched Cambodian officials process over 800 returnees, who submitted to two health screenings by Cambodian officials before being allowed to travel on to their final destinations. Returnees were advised to self-monitor for 14 days after returning home. 

IOM, which operates a TB screening project at the Poipet (migrant) Transit Centre, provided the returnees with health and hygiene information, food and hygiene kits. Sleeping mats and mosquito nets also were being pre-positioned at the centre for migrants needing to stay overnight. Despite the closure of the border, the centre continues to receive returnees. 

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is also seeing large numbers of returnees at its three major international border checkpoints with Thailand - two in the south of the country and one close to the capital, Vientiane. On Tuesday over 15,000 migrants returned from Thailand. 

On Wednesday quarantine centres were set up at the border crossing points for migrants with COVID-19-like symptoms. They will remain quarantined for 14 days. 

IOM Lao People’s Democratic Republic has been asked to provide support with food distribution, community risk awareness raising, and data collection, with a focus on identifying provinces of return. This will enable community health workers provide necessary services in destination communities. 

IOM has appealed for USD 116 million to assist migrants affected by the COVID-19 crisis. 

For more information please contact Chris Lom at IOM’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok at Tel: +66 626028752,