Thailand: Migrants Advocate Vaccines As COVID Costs Lives and Jobs | Migration messages

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Bangkok, Thailand – When the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the Thai border town of Mae Sot in April last year, * Hnin Hnin was able to keep her school open to migrant children and spent her mornings as usual creating puns on a large whiteboard while her five-year-old students watched.

Infections and deaths remained in the single digits at the time, and Hnin Hnin, a teacher from Myanmar, was cautiously optimistic that the pandemic would end soon. Her school, which is supported by a local charity, received plenty of food, hygiene kits and masks.

But a year later, an outbreak triggered by the highly contagious Delta variant has led to an increase in infections in factories in the area, overwhelming hospitals, and prolonged lockdown of the provinces on the Thai-Myanmar border and the closure of the Hnin Hnin school.

“A lot of people started to die,” she told Al Jazeera. “Many of my friends have died. It spread very quickly and now many areas in Mae Sot are infected. “

The virus hit particularly close to home when Hnin Hnin’s friend and fellow teacher fell ill with COVID-19 in July. Her friend tried to go to the hospital when her condition worsened but was turned away – they said they had no bed for her. When she tried to call for help to reach her house, no one came.

“She has received no help from the Thai government,” said Hnin Hnin, adding that paramedics only answer calls from Thai nationals. Hnin Hnin’s friend finally died at home at the end of July.

“She was just one of many of my friends who got sick.”

“The real solution”

The latest wave has rocked Thailand, pushing COVID-19 cases to nearly 1.3 million with more than 13,000 registered deaths. Thailand reports at least 15,000 cases daily, with an average of around 175 daily deaths – in contrast to last year’s numbers, which had few daily cases and infrequent deaths.

As COVID-19 rises, organizations working on the border say the thousands of migrants and more than 90,000 refugees there face a number of challenges, such as lack of access to coronavirus-related health care. And as factories and workplaces close again, their livelihoods are also at risk, which experts believe has an impact on the mental health of many migrants.

Hnin Hnin is now threatening to close their school for many months.

“With the lockdown, people ran out of jobs and money,” Hin Hin told Al Jazeera. “At first we relied on donations, but it’s running out.”

Hnin Hnin made about 3,000 Thai baht ($ 100) a month. But now she can hardly afford enough food. She feels responsible to her students, worries about their safety, and hopes they won’t get into trouble when they are not in class.

“I really hope that migrant schools can open soon,” she said. “Because many children are now forced to work or end up on the street.”

Thai border guards patrol the Myanmar border in Mae Sot, Thailand March 18, 2021 [File: Soe Zeya Tun/ Reuters]
Myanmar migrant workers register for testing at a COVID-19 clinic in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, on January 10, 2021 [File: Lillian Suwanrumpha/ AFP]

Mae Sot authorities imposed COVID-19 restrictions in the area after cases rose at several factories in late June. This month, more than half of workers in three factories, including 452 people, were confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper. After the factory outbreak, the governor of the region ordered the closure of the three factories.

In July, local authorities imposed a night curfew in the surrounding Tak province, banning people from leaving their homes after 8 p.m. The Post also reported that migrant workers were not allowed to move between counties unless they had permission from the Mae Sot county chief.

In addition to tightening restrictions, the Hnin Hnin community had very little access to vaccines, leaving them exposed to the virus. When the Thai people around her started vaccinating themselves, she wondered why her entire community was being excluded.

Al Jazeera made several inquiries to government spokesmen about the lack of access to vaccines for migrants at the border. None of the officers reacted.

“Lockdowns control COVID-19, but migrants are not given financial support to survive these times of losing their income. Vaccines are the real solution, ”said Braham Press, director of the MAP Foundation, an NGO committed to empowering migrant communities from Myanmar who live and work in Thailand. “However, it is questionable for migrants to get a vaccine. A handful of migrants had their employer vaccinated, but most had to pay service fees. “

Without adequate protection and income, says Brahm, the current situation puts a strain on the mental health of migrants. He adds that many migrant workers went into debt to survive the economic fallout from previous waves.

“Concerned about my family”

Thailand is a country of origin, destination and transit for migrants in Southeast Asia. The kingdom shares four land borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, and today an estimated four to five million migrants from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and other regional nations work in Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration. Refugees and displaced persons are also constantly moving across the border with Myanmar in search of security. The February 1 coup in Myanmar brought a new wave of people fleeing the country.

As COVID-19 cases rise, the nine camps along the border are also facing lockdowns. This is accompanied by restrictions on movement that have impaired the flow of resources such as food and medicine.

* Lily, a 23-year-old refugee now working in Mae Sot, says she is worried about her family who are staying in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp where she grew up.

“I am very worried about my family. I want them to have access to vaccines because they are old and my mother has a chronic disease, ”Lilly said. “She is not feeling well. My parents can’t go to work and sometimes they don’t have the money to buy food. I send money whenever I can. “

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says migrants and refugees must be fully involved in the government’s COVID-19 response, including treatment for the disease and its vaccine distribution plan.

“COVID-19 affects everyone and POCs (People of Concern) in Thailand are at the same risk of contracting the virus and spreading it as the local population,” said Morgane Roussel Hemery, a UNHCR deputy external relations officer . “POCs can be particularly vulnerable due to challenges they may face in meeting basic needs, accessing information about COVID-19, and getting toiletries or medical assistance.”

In June, the Thai authorities in Bangkok closed and sealed more than 600 construction camps that were home to more than 80,000 migrant workers. They were not allowed to leave their own four walls and were practically detained. Government officials cited safety concerns after COVID-19 clusters were found in migrant communities.

“Most migrants receive a daily wage and if they are not working they are not paid. Some who are locked on the factory premises can be helped with some food, ”said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, a group that provides food, shelter and other forms of support to refugees from Myanmar. “It is more difficult for others who live off-site, and when they have relatives to care for, the burden increases.”

The decision to segregate large groups of migrants has created widespread suspicion of the authorities, and many migrant workers say they feel persistently ill-treated by the Thai state.

In Mae Sot, Hnin Hnin worries about their students’ lack of access to schooling and fears that more people may die without vaccines and access to health care.

“The problem is that if you are Thai you can get the vaccines for free,” she said.

“We can’t get it for the migrants, even if we pay money. I think some people will die if they don’t have access to health care. “

Additional coverage from Linn Let Arkar.

All migrant names have been changed to protect their identities for privacy and security reasons.

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