IOM: Myanmar in Motion: From Human Trafficking to Regular Migration


Today, Myanmar is the main labour migration source country in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. It has been estimated that one in four people are migrants, both nationally and internationally. Although migrating helps many improve their living standards, migrants are often faced with poor working and housing conditions, debt bondage, exploitation, forced labour and trafficking. Such issues highlight Myanmar’s need to reform its migration governance.

To discuss Myanmar’s current migration challenges, LIFT spoke with Mr. Akio Nakayama, Chief of Mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Mission in Myanmar; Ms. Jackie Pollock, Chief Technical Advisor for Migration Projects at the International Labour Organization (ILO); and Ms. Reiko Harima, Regional Coordinator of the Mekong Migration Network.

Migration helps increase living standards of migrants and their families

Labour migration is a traditionally important livelihood strategy for people in Myanmar. According to the 2014 Population and Housing Census, there are more than 9 million internal migrants, and the Ministry of Immigration and Population estimates that there are some 4.25 million migrants abroad with more than 3 million employed in Thailand alone.

Most migrants send back remittances to their relatives. The World Bank has assessed that approximately USD 2.7 billion was remitted in 2018, accounting for 3.9 per cent of GDP. This figure does not include the remittances sent home through informal channels, which remain migrants’ preferred methods.

“For migrants and their families, there are positive sides to migration” says Mr Nakayama, “it clearly provides them with a better and steady income source, particularly international migrants”. Remittances indeed have a significant impact on reducing poverty as they provide financial safety nets to both migrants and their dependents.

Many migrants suffer from exploitation, poor health care access and debt bondage

A large majority of migrants from Myanmar go through irregular channels, which makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse and labour exploitation. According to UNESCO, almost 60 per cent of internal migrants work seven days a week, 33 per cent work 11 to 15 hours a day, and only 60 per cent get some time off per month. Living and working conditions can be unhealthy and unsafe due to factors such as unsanitary surroundings, extreme temperatures or fumes; not to mention limited health care access.

Mr Nakayama specifies that “unfortunately some [migrants] suffer from accidents, diseases and injuries, and if they have to finish their employment early, they are not able to gain net income, and sometimes end up indebted or in a worse situation than when they left”. Health problems can be financially catastrophic for migrants who are not entitled to benefits: they are often forced to pay out-of-pocket when they are already indebted to recruitment agencies, brokers or money lenders.

Migration can indeed be expensive. For example, although migrants should not legally have to pay agencies more than MMK 150,000 (USD 100) to migrate to Thailand, many report paying much more. Fees are typically deducted from workers’ salaries, and some describe employers confiscating documents until debts are fully repaid, leading to debt bondage.

Irregular migrants in particular risk trafficking and forced labour

In 2005, Myanmar enacted the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, outlining penalties between five years and life in prison for human trafficking. Both the governments of Myanmar and Thailand also agreed on Bilateral Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on the Management of Cases and the Repatrition and Reintegration of VoTs between Myanmar and Thailand. Problems however persist: in Thailand, some migrants are trafficked into the sex industry, domestic work, construction, factory work, agriculture and fishing; all industries that poorly protected by labour laws.

Furthermore, as stated by Mr Nakayama, “continuous risky migration from conflict-afflicted areas such as Kachin and Shan state [is worrying because] many end up in exploitative and trafficking situations”. In fact, according to UN Women, trafficking is prevalent between Kachin State and China. It has been estimated that out of every ten women who have been trafficked to China, eight are forced to marry, and two to birth children.

Countries of origin and destination play the blame game 

When dealing with issues relating to migration, both origin and destination countries have crucial parts to play to ensure migrants’ safety and wellbeing. However, in countries of origin and destination around the world, there exists a pattern of pointing fingers at each other when things go wrong. Anurak Tossarat from the Ministry of Labour has indeed said to Agence France Presse (AFP) that if problems occur, “they may be on the side of the Burmese recruiters”. On the other hand, Myanmar agents blame Thai agents for encouraging illegal trade and demanding extra payment in exchange for jobs.

Ms Harima recommends that while destination countries have a responsibility to ensure foreign workers are well-treated, “countries of origin have an important role to play in setting up safe migration channels, providing accurate information to migrants before they leave, as well as providing overseas assistance through for example embassies and assistance if migrants need to return”.

A large majority migrates through irregular means because regular channels remain impractical

According to Ms Pollock, from the 1980s to 2010, there were no legal channels to migrate from Myanmar to Thailand even though people at the time desperately needed refuge and livelihoods.  The legacy of this period continues, and Thailand and Myanmar are now trying to find ways to fully document all migrants. It is however challenging, as temporary documents provided to migrants typically expire before all migrants are documented, and a new round of documentation then begins.

As listed in the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agency Federation, there are currently more than 250 government-approved overseas employment agencies. They are however all located in Yangon, and as Mr Nakayama explains, “the pre-departure orientation service for regular migrants is currently conducted in Yangon for three-day sessions. […] While these efforts are commendable for many aspiring migrants, it can be a very long way to travel. We support the efforts of the government to decentralise the pre-departure orientation”. Furthermore, the culture and language just across the border may be more familiar for many migrants than that in Yangon. Migrating through regular channels can indeed be sluggish due to complicated bureaucratic processes as well as lengthy travel that often result in additional costs for the migrant.

Streamlining the migration process by decentralising the location of employment agencies

To incentivise legal migration, Ms Pollock asserts that more efficient channels of migration based on the needs of migrants need to be developed. Numbers indeed demonstrate that current regular migration processes are still too slow and complicated, especially for migrants who need to earn a living quickly.

Mr Nakayama, Ms Harima and Ms Pollock all agree that one of the next steps to take in order to promote regular migration is to decentralise the location of employment agencies. Having employment agencies located in the areas where migrants come from such as Mon and Shan state will make it safer, easier and cheaper for migrants to leave the country through regular means. Such initiatives will also make migrants less vulnerable and might help reduce risks such as exploitation, forced labour and trafficking.


WRITER: Sandra Vedeld