Discrimination, food shortages for Myanmar migrants in Thai floods

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TUESDAY, 22 NOVEMBER 2011

BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The green floodwaters are opaque, chest deep in some areas and often foul-smelling. Road signs and household items submerged beneath the surface make walking through them dangerous.

This is Rangsit, a sub-district north of Bangkok and home to a large number of migrant workers from neighbouring, impoverished Myanmar. It is also one of the areas most affected by the worst floods Thailand has seen in half a century.

Here, where three bustling markets used to employ thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, waste – especially oil – from inundated kitchens and rusting vehicles floats on the surface. Yet migrant children and their parents play in the water happily, oblivious to the dangers to their health.

The water level has gone down in the market areas. But on Friday the roads were still closed and many workers, who are on daily wages, worry about the long-term ramifications of the devastating floods which have claimed 564 lives since July.

“I don’t think businesses can start again so quickly because consumers would not have much money after the floods,” said Lay Phyu, from Karen state in eastern Myanmar, who used to earn 300 ($10) to 400 ($13) baht a day working in one of the markets.

“This means they would reduce the number of workers they hire. I think job opportunities for both new and returning migrants would be very difficult,” he added, resigned to living with floods for at least a few more weeks.

With no income since flooding started a month ago, he had been living on instant noodles he’d bought in anticipation of the floods.

MIGRANT WORKERS HIT HARD

“(The) Red Cross came once and gave cooked food and other items and Save the Children also came and helped us,” said the 32-year-old.

On Friday, he was volunteering with Myanmar Development Foundation, which was set up to help migrants and was helping Save the Children distribute food and hygiene kits to 100 migrant families with young children in Rangsit.

“But one group who came with rice and water didn’t give them to the Myanmar people. They said it was only for the Thais. It made us feel very sad,” he said of a different group.

The group came back another day and gave them aid in the end. But Thailand has come under fire for its treatment of migrant workers caught up in the floods.

Activists said the government has failed to help migrants trapped in houses and factories and that many face discrimination when it comes to flood assistance.

With the inundations forcing seven industrial estates and many factories to close, migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos have found themselves without a job or a place to live in.

Many choose to go home. The International Organization for Migration said close to 100,000 migrant workers returned to Myanmar between Sept. 1 and Nov. 10.

Others stayed and fended for themselves – some because of concern over their illegal status, some because of work commitments or fear of losing jobs or possessions.

For some, it just doesn’t make economic sense to go home.

“We can’t afford the cost of going home or the cost of coming back after going home,” said a young man from Myanmar who declined to be named. He is amongst half of the 1,500 or so people from Myanmar living in another part of Rangsit who decided to stay put.

“Here we could at least live cheaply and eat whatever we have,” he added.

“Of course we don’t have adequate (food), we just have to make do with whatever there is,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

MALNUTRITION CONCERNS

Such changes in dietary patterns, as well as an increase in commodity prices, pose health threats.

“They have difficulties making a living now so it affects the nutrition of the children,” said Soe Hlaing, a resident in the area and a volunteer aid worker. “The children are not growing as they should be.”

The community there had suffered flooding for two months, though less than in the market area and now waters there have receded significantly. But their worries are far from over.

With local residents also out of work, competition for jobs has become fiercer.

And mosquitoes that came with the stagnant waters carry the threat of vector-borne diseases such as dengue for both adults and children, while three out of four factories in the neighbourhood have closed and few expect them to reopen before mid-December.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)

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