Beyond Paradise: Lives of Burmese Migrant Women

November 6, 2015
Written by Dr. Tabinda Sarosh | Programme Manager, ARROW
Photos by Arpita Das and Samreen Shahbaz | Programme Officers, ARROW

Chiang Mai is a beautiful city. Located in an enchanting hilly terrain, it entices one with the various visual treats it offers you. Animals, flora, fauna and the lingering fragrance in the air reminds one of the childhood stories of paradise where the proverbial fruit hangs low and the nature weaves a beautiful canvass for the senses. It’s a pleasure to walk into its streets, decorated with quaint little clay dolls, neatly arranged on the sidewalks, beautiful ceramic pottery and the ever-amazing Thai food.

Located on the Thai border with Burma, Chiang Mai is also the second largest metropolitan city of Thailand. It has the third largest migrant labor rate in the country. Most migrants are from Burma and are engaged in agriculture or construction work providing the much-needed labor to support the booming economy and growth of the city.

However, all is not well in paradise. Migrant workers from Burma who flee conflict and atrocious economic and political turmoil are employed to fulfill the ever-growing needs of the city. Workers cope with insufficient wages, poor access to education and health, dismal living conditions and severe restrictions on mobility.

During a recent visit to one of ARROW’s partners, the Migratory Assistance Program Foundation (MAP Foundation), we had the opportunity to closely understand the issues of the migrant workers and the work of the foundation. MAP Foundation has been working since 1996 to improve the working and living conditions and quality of life of the migrant workers from Burma. Besides giving services such as legal and labor rights advice they also run a drop-in center for HIV counseling and domestic violence, a women leadership program and two radio stations that broadcast on labor’s issues in their local vicinities with migrant populations.

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ARROW’s visit consisted of meeting the MAP team, learning about the various departments and areas of work, visits to the MAP radio station, drop-in centres and meeting and interacting with the migrant communities in the rural Pong Yeng and as well as in the urban sites in Chiang Mai.

When one witnesses up-close and personal the phenomenon which is migration, there is an onslaught of many different thoughts and ideas. How does it even feel to be a migrant in a country that either does not want you there or has its own set of conditions to grant you a stay in their territory? The Burmese migrants have been driven out of their homes due to conflict, state oppression and destitution and one is driven to brainstorm about how women are faring in a foreign land where they have restricted rights and opportunities to access those rights: they literally have nowhere to turn to. For an example, in cases of domestic violence by a close family member who is deemed otherwise a part of the only support system that a woman has in a foreign land, what is she to do? What are the options available to her, especially if she does not own a migrant identity card? So she might have no choice at all or have a tough choice but not the courage to exercise it and bear the social consequences.

Migration is a global issue that has recently gained more visibility and attention due to conflict prevailing in the Middle East. Numerous people have fled their homes, abandoning their lives, property and loved ones to seek shelter from a bloody war. Sadly, not many migrant populations have gained the same sort of attention from the world. As always it seems that issues of migrant women are often neglected, especially those related to their bodily rights.

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For ARROW’s team that works with an intersectional approach, it was an opportunity to further strengthen their ties with the women on ground and the organizations who work for them, reinvigorating the spirit of activism. As an organization committed to women’s rights and championing sexual and reproductive rights, we hope to continue our work with migrant women and provide support to help them to exercise full control over their body and health.

For more information about ARROW’s work on migration and SRHR, go to http://arrow.org.my/work/migration/

  • Sachini Perera

    Enjoyed reading this Tabinda.