General Background

The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) comprises Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, China (Yunnan Province), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand, and Vietnam, and is home to more than 326 million people, including up to 5 million migrants.

Thailand is the major receiving country for migrants in the region, hosting around 4-5 million migrants (documented and undocumented) mainly from neighbouring Cambodia, Myanmar, and Lao PDR. Cambodia is home to an estimated 150,000 to 1.1 million Vietnamese, many of whom are long term residents who arrived in Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The Yunnan province of China, sharing its border with Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Vietnam, also has a long history of outward and inward migration. Though it was traditionally a sending area of migrants, the direction of the migration became two–way following the growth of China’s market economy and the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s, including the opening of its borders with these countries for trade and communication.

Accurate data concerning the number of migrants in the GMS is hard to come by, as most migration in the region is spontaneous and through irregular channels. Many people in the GMS are also not documented in their home countries. For some migrants who come from ethnic groups separated by national borders, movement across borders has long been a part of their daily lives.

Labour Migration Flows in the Greater Mekong Subregion (2008), Source: MMN

A Brief History

Up to the latter half of the twentieth century, many of the countries in the GMS were embroiled in internal strife, repressive regimes, cross-border conflicts, recurring political instability and associated economic difficulties.

From the 1960s to 1980s, migrants from the GMS were mostly refugees fleeing wars and repressive regimes. During and after the Vietnam-US War, for instance, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled to countries in the GMS and beyond. A large number of Vietnamese people also settled in Cambodia during and after the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia.

In Thailand, a large number of Laotian refugees and migrants began arriving as early as 1975. The number of refugees from Myanmar also increased beginning in 1984 and further accelerated after September 1988 when the uprising demanding democracy was quashed by the military regime.

In the 1990s, the population movements became a mix of refugees and labour migration.

Labour Migration to Thailand

Thailand’s economy saw rapid economic growth particularly between 1990 and 1995. This strong economic growth resulted in a higher demand for labour, attracting a large number of workers from rural areas across Thailand, as well as from neighbouring countries. Migrant workers in Thailand are most commonly employed in the construction, agriculture, manufacturing, domestic work, fishing, seafood processing, and the service sectors.

Undocumented migrant workers became a significant feature of the Thai economy and society. In 1992, the Thai government introduced the first ever scheme aimed exclusively to register irregular Burmese migrants who worked in certain provinces mostly bordering Burma. Less than 10,000 workers registered for the scheme.

In 1996, the first written policy appeared through a Cabinet resolution providing work permits to undocumented migrants. This practice of periodically issuing Cabinet resolutions has become the government’s standard procedure in shaping its policy and practice on migration in Thailand. The features of this scheme have changed constantly from year to year, depending on the economic situation and political temper.

Beginning in 2003, Thailand signed a series of separate Memorandum of Understandings with Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam, which officiated regular channels of migration between these countries. 

To learn more, please visit the Regularisation of Migrants page under our Areas of Work.