International Organization for Migration

Our work aims to better understand and relay the story of Burmese migrants at the Thai-Burmese border, particularly the emergent class of “viral refugees” fleeing COVID-19 from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand. These refugees join an estimated 3-4 million Burmese migrant workers already in Thailand, many of whom work outside the legal framework and have few options for affordable health care. Given their poor living conditions, Burmese migrants are especially vulnerable during the current pandemic. Not only has COVID-19 left many migrants jobless and struggling to feed their families, but many migrant communities have little knowledge of COVID-19 or experience high degrees of misinformation about how to stay safe due to illiteracy, language barriers, and lack of internet access. Moreover, the situation is exacerbated as the dire need to work to receive financial compensation often outweigh minimizing risks of contracting the virus for many migrant families.

In order to contextualize why and how this new class of refugees arose, we aim to illuminate Burma’s complex history, structural violence in shaping unique vulnerabilities, citizenhood and the lack thereof, and fragile health infrastructure. To do so, we will conduct comparative analysis of these culture and socioeconomic structures in Burma against those in Thailand as they manifest in the pandemic. A striking country-wide statistic is that Thailand has had only 59 COVID deaths in its population of 70 million whereas Burma has suffered 1,307 deaths of 54 million people; the latter figure is most likely significantly underreported due to a lack of comprehensive surveillance. We consider these comparisons with a critical lens, especially given an invisible COVID-19 epidemic among “stateless” migrants missing from the system as neither “Burmese” nor “Thai” in citizenship. This project includes historical timelines, a variety of visuals and photographs, and informative storytelling in order to walk with the reader in understanding the historically-entrenched migrant crisis at the Thai-Burmese border and differences between the two governments’ approaches to health, in light of the “viral refugees” of today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

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*Bibliography is included in our project Wix website.

Project group members: Jaeyoon Cha, Austin Harmon, Michael Lee, Sophia Martinez