'Hard for ordinary people': High prices, poverty forces thousands in Myanmar to illegally cross into Thailand
Workers from Myanmar have long sought employment in Thailand. In the days before the pandemic, a little more than two million Myanmar people lived and worked in the kingdom.
After the borders were closed in March 2020, migrants had no choice but to travel illegally.
While there is no official data on the size of the inflow, experts say one indicator is how many migrants have been caught by authorities.
According to Thai government figures, the number of arrests tripled after Myanmar's February 1 coup.
The number of migrants intercepted peaked in November 2020 at more than 6,000, an increase of more than tenfold from the 560 people arrested in January.
Geraldine Ansart, the chief of the International Organization for Migration's Thailand mission, said for each person arrested, "it is realistic to assume that... at least one other Myanmar national could cross the border without being apprehended".
Roisai Wongsuban, a Thai migrant rights activist, said the spike in arrivals was due to the economic crisis in Myanmar after the coup, which saw inflation soar and job opportunities disappear.
Food prices doubled as the value of the kyat plummeted against the US dollar, and fuel costs soared, she said. Many people became destitute.
"It is hard for ordinary people."
As a result of Covid-spurred border closures, seasonal workers who had travelled in and out of Thailand for years were left in limbo.
"The border has been closed for so long that there is no legal pathways for workers who want to come back to Thailand," Roisai added.
General Santipong Thammapiya, a spokesman for the Thai army, said it was mainly Thailand's reopening to tourists in November that had attracted workers from Myanmar -- many of whom work in the kingdom's vital industries, including the service sector.
"Workers... wanted to come back," he said while speaking to AFP. "They also trust the Thai healthcare system, which can provide treatment for Covid."
In Thailand, the demand for Myanmar workers is high; however, given their status, they are forced to accept lower wages.
Thailand is facing a shortage of 200,000 workers, according to the labour ministry.
However, according to Santipong, Bangkok does not tolerate illegal migration, and those arrested are sent to the courts for legal proceedings, followed by repatriation.
Despite obstacles, two people smugglers who operate near the Three Pagodas Pass border crossing in Kanchanaburi province told news agency AFP that they have been doing well.
Desperation drives thousands to pay 13,000 baht to 25,000 baht ($380 to $750) to cross.
"Some are arrested, but there are even more people who are not," said one smuggler on condition of anonymity.