After keeping the coronavirus pandemic largely under control for almost a year, a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases among workers from neighboring Myanmar has ignited anti-migrant sentiment among some Thais.
More than 1,300 coronavirus cases across Thailand have now been connected to a seafood market in the coastal province of Samut Sakhon, near Bangkok, a revelation that has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment among some Thais.
Samut Sakhon, where a 67-year-old Thai prawn seller tested positive for COVID-19 on December 17, is home to a large number of workers from Myanmar, and many have blamed them for the outbreak.
“Shoot all of them down since they don’t follow the rules,” one Thai citizen commented on a Facebook post, which claimed three Burmese men had fled Samut Sakhon. “Kick them back to their country,” read another Facebook post, referring to Burmese migrants.
A local media report, however, revealed that the three Burmese men had entered Thailand legally in July to work as fishermen. They returned to the eastern province of Chonburi after visiting relatives in the south of the country.
Since the outbreak, Samut Sakhon has been put under lockdown and migrant workers are barred from leaving or entering the province.
Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said migrant workers were the “likely” culprits behind the record surge in coronavirus cases, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has blamed the flare-up on “illegal immigrants.”
“It is unclear where the original source of infection came from, but it is obvious that migrants live in conditions ripe for the rapid spread of COVID. This is not their fault,” Brahm Press, the director of local migrant rights group MAP Foundation, told DW.
Press said the Thai government “only sees the situation in terms of security,” which is “totally counterproductive.”
Naruemon Thabchumpon, director of the Asian Research Center for Migration (ARCM), said the Thai government “should treat both sides equally (citizens and non-citizens)” as “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate.”
‘Discriminatory and derogatory’
In addition to the lockdown, Samut Sakhon’s Central Shrimp Market and Sri Muang dormitory, where a number of COVID-19 cases were detected, have also been declared off-limits.
“There was no consultation or prior announcement — migrants woke up one day and had barbed wire surrounding their compound,” Press said. “I don’t think they would have done that with workers in a Thai factory. Not only is it discriminatory, it is derogatory.”
Migrant workers in Samut Sakhon have been prohibited from entering or leaving the province, while Thai citizens are only required to inform authorities when travelling. Last week, Bangkok authorities asked religious sites to ban migrants from visiting “until the situation is better.”
Reiko Harima, regional coordinator of the Mekong Migration Network, has condemned arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of movement.
“Where restrictions are considered necessary to stop the spread of the virus and protect public health, they must be based on expert medical opinion and should apply equally to both local and migrant residents,” Harima told DW.
Calls for tolerance
Thailand’s economy is highly dependent on the low-wage labor provided by migrant workers who keep the seafood, construction and manufacturing industries running.
Some Thai officials have spoken out against the growing prejudice against migrant workers.
“The Myanmar people living in the Central Shrimp Market are not convicts, nor are they criminal suspects. They did not commit any wrongdoing,” said Veerasak Vijitsaengsri, governor of Samut Sakhon.
Taweesin Wisanuyothin, a spokesman for Thailand’s COVID-19 task force, urged the public to show compassion during a news conference last week.
“Migrant workers help drive our economy. We rely on their workforce. Thai people won’t take the jobs they are doing,” he said. “We are brothers and sisters, whether they are legal or not.”