Myanmar is the most ethnically, multilingual and multi-religious diverse country in South- east Asia. A lower middle-income least developed country it has a population of 54,409,800 (July 2020, est.), composed of 135 ethnicities, of which the main ones are Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. The main religions of the country are Theravada Buddhism 89.2%, Christianity 5.0%, Islam 3.5%, Hinduism 0.5%, Spiritualism 1.2%. The capital was moved from Rangoon (Yangon) to the newly constructed Nay Pyi Taw in 2005 for administrative reasons. The country is governed as a parliamentary system: 25% of the legislators are appointed by the military and the rest are elected in general elections. The current President is U Win Myint.
Fourteen years after Myanmar received its independence from Britain in 1948, a military coup d’état forced out the civilian government. The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, when a new elected government was set up. In 2015 the country held nationwide parliamentary elections that the public widely accepted as a credible reflection of the will of the people. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the civilian government’s de facto leader and, due to constitutional provisions preventing her from becoming president, remained in the position of state counsellor. In the same year the new government promoted peace processes, which led to the signature of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) by some ethnic armed groups (EAGs). The path to peace is still nowadays fraught with difficulties, and the elections on 8 November 2020 may give new impetus to the peace process.
Following the end of Myanmar’s seclusion in 2011, trade/economic sanctions imposed by other nations have been eased. The effective management of the country’s natural resources: gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources are critical for maintaining a strong base for sustainable growth. It is also central to the discussions on peace and federalism, considering that much of the country’s mineral wealth is found in conflict- affected areas. Myanmar economic growth rate recovered from a low growth under 6% in 2011, but has been volatile between 6% and 7.2% during the past few years. COVID-19 badly affected Myanmar’s economic growth and the government has established a fund and a relief plan to counter the effects of the pandemic. Young labor force has the potential to attract foreign investment in the energy, garment, IT, and food and beverage sectors in the Yangoon Region especially from China.
Historically, Myanmar once had a matriarchal system and women held unique social status. In more recent times with deteriorating economic climate, families have increasingly prioritized the rights of males over females to limited resources. These changes affect the access of women to nutrition, medical services, vocational training, and other educational opportunities. Forced labor (including child labor) and human trafficking are common. Myanmar has ratified ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labor in December 2013 and the ILO Minimum Age Convention on 8 June 2020. Myanmar has also ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols in 2005, and it passed an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law the same year. Nevertheless trafficking is still rampant, especially in the Northern region, where it borders China. Myanmar is in Tier 3 of the USA Trafficking in Persons Report (2020). Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government increased investigations and prosecutions of trafficking crimes, including those involving official complicity, and increased investigations of forced labor in the fishing industry. It also identified and referred to care more victims than in previous years and enacted long awaited legislation enhancing protections for child victims.
Generally speaking migration and displacement within, from and to Myanmar is linked to a diverse range of complex drivers, and in many cases results in critical humanitarian needs. Myanmar, which has not ratified the 1951 UNHCR Convention on the Status of Refugees, is one of the top five countries of origin globally for refugees, with large numbers hosted in neighboring countries and across the region. Some of these refugees are starting to return, in both spontaneous and organized processes, and the prospect of large-scale refugee repatriation remains from Bangladesh, Thailand and beyond. Myanmar also hosts large numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) fleeing conflict, violence, persecution and disaster. Myanmar is also the largest country of origin for migrants in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region, with the vast majority of more than 4 million migrants travelling to Thailand, China, Malaysia and Singapore, although estimates of the effective number of migrants are higher. Many migrant workers are undocumented and in “irregular status”, with regular deportations back to Myanmar. There are considerable humanitarian concerns related to trafficking (within and from Myanmar), people smuggling, extortion, debt bondage and physical exploitation. Statelessness is also a critical humanitarian challenge for Rohingyas, Bengali speaking Muslims living in the Rakhine state. The Government of Mynamar does not recognize them as citizens according to the 1982 Citizenship Law. In this regard, for the first time UNHCR included Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and IDPs in Rakhine State, Myanmar, in its 2017 and 2018 data of stateless persons, “in light of the size of this population and that they are in fact stateless as well as displaced”. The Human Rights Council has sought a comprehensive solution to the targeted killings and human rights abuses occurring in Rakhine since August 2017 (Resolution A/HRC/S-27/1). While this was not the first time that Rohingyas fled Myanmar as a result of violence, it was one of the largest waves of displacement in decades (more than 850000 in Bangladesh refugees’ camps at the end of 2019). On 30 June 2020 at the 44th Session of the Human Rights Council Myanmar Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Myanmar to “end the intensifying armed conflict in Rakhine State, and address root causes that have prevented Rohingya returns since 2017”.
IOM, ILO, UNHCR and ICRC are strengthening their engagement with the government to support people on the move. Civil Society’s and Faith Based Organizations including Catholic Church, Protestant CSOs and Buddhists involve key actors in community based prevention, protection and partnership activities in Myanmar. There is a great collaboration between the Government and the Catholic Bishops for the promotion of peace, which is witnessed also by the participation of the Catholic Church to the Religions for Peace – Myanmar (RfP – M), the country first full-fledged representative and action-oriented interreligious body for reconciliation, peace and development. Since 2014 safe migration and prevention of human trafficking program have been promoted by the Catholic Bishop Conference in Myanmar (CBCM) together with Caritas Myanmar (KMSS), along with the development of a case management system and referral mechanism; and the
promotion of advocacy. At local level both KMSS and Good Shepherd Sisters support the most vulnerable, advocating for social justice in their programs and activities. JRS promotes peaceful coexistence amongst IDPs and host communities through Peace Education projects, while ICMC supports Rohingya refugees in Malaysia who are victims of sexual and gender-based violence. It is to be noted that Malteser International Myanmar has promoted inclusive measures of disaster management specifically tailored for people with disabilities, who are at risk of being left behind during disaster displacement.
The Franciscans International Foundation is more focused on implanting the Order in the country. Thalita Kum, the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, was founded recently in Myanmar under the umbrella of Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar (CRCM), but it does not have any activity yet.
In order to promote lasting peace and to integrate migration-related policy concerns in different policy areas, there is a need for strengthening coordination and networking with all main actors and organizations in the field.
Myanmar or Burma is the most ethnically, multilingual and multi-religious diverse country in South East Asia. Covering a total land mass area of 676,578 square kilometers, it has a population of 54,409,800 (July 2020, est.). The capital was moved from Rangoon (Yangon) to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005. The major ethnic groups are the Burman (Bamar) 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%. The main religions of the country are Theravada Buddhism 89.2%, Christianity 5.0%, Islam 3.5%, Hinduism 0.5%, Spiritualism 1.2%. While 31.0 % of the population of Myanmar is urban, the majority works in agriculture (22% of the economy), with wages 18% lower than in urban areas. The Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted Myanmar’s economic expansion with GDP growth of 6.8% in 2018/19 likely to fall to 0.5%, although agriculture and ICT have proven relatively resilient. Different natural hazards, due to tropical monsoon weather, and internal conflicts cause internal displacement and migration. The adoption of a new Constitution in 2008 and political transition to a free democratic system are widely believed to be determining the future of Myanmar.
Myanmar is mostly a source country of migrants, while international migrants entering the country are men in the age 20 – 64, coming from China and India (UNDESA 2019a).
According to the 2014 Myanmar Census, over 4 million Myanmar nationals live abroad (Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2014). The latest data by UNDESA show that around 65% of international migrants from Myanmar are men in the age 25 – 44 and 45% are women in the age 25-40 (UNDESA 2019a). The majority of migrants from Myanmar prefer to leave for Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Republic of Korea and Japan (ILO Myanmar on the basis of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population 2018 data).
Thailand is host to 2202394 migrants from Myanmar (ILO 2018), the majority of which are male low-skilled workers employed in factories. Along the Myanmar border with Thailand, the checkpoints process a high number of Myanmar migrants who are particularly concentrated in industries located along border areas, such as in Thailand’s Mae Sot, Surat Thani, Tak and Ranong provinces. With respect to the local population they face challenges in finding accommodation, and accessing health services and education. They also face difficulties in communicating with individuals and institutions in their host communities due to language barriers, as well as communicating with Myanmar embassies or consulates and NGOs when seeking assistance. A recurrent challenge is that they also face frequent arrest and have little or no legal protection in their host countries, even in situations in which they are waiting for their work permits. Unfamiliarity with the places of their destination and confiscation of their documents by smugglers and employers increase abuses and compound the already existing vulnerability. Many migrants from Myanmar travel by boat across the Andaman Sea, land in Thailand and proceed overland to Malaysia. Many die at sea from starvation, beatings by boat crews and dehydration (UNESCAP, 2015). The risk of detention and deportation for irregular migrants is high, especially because Malaysia has not included irregular migrants in the ASEAN agreement on assistance to migrants.
Singapore is the only country to host more female than male migrants from Myanmar. On the other end of the spectrum, women only represent 3 percent of the Myanmar migrants in the Republic of Korea and 19 per cent in Malaysia. These huge differences largely depend on the jobs available to migrants in the host countries: in the latter countries most of the demand is for male workforce and the few women either accompany their husbands or work in the service, domestic and manufacturing sectors.
70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas and internal migrants constitute a significant proportion of this percentage. The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census listed internal migrants at over 9 million in 2015, equivalent to almost 20% of Myanmar’s total population (Department of Population 2015). Internal migrants are mostly women (53%), who follow their family (49% compared to 32% for men). Landless households are more likely to have family members migrating internally, as they are unable to afford to migrate internationally. Migrating internally means improving livelihoods and avoiding poor socio-economic conditions.
According to a study of the Asian Development Bank, published in 2018, tertiary educated migrants coming from Myanmar are negligible if compared with other countries in South- east Asia. Despite the majority of researchers in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-related sectors in the Asia and the Pacific are women from Myanmar: 85.5 per cent on the total number of women researchers (UNESCO 2018a), it is difficult for them to find a qualified job. In Myanmar having qualifications that match the job provide almost double the professional chances than someone who is overqualified. Consequently, the wage difference between the overqualified and adequately qualified can reach 20%. Together with the USA and Australia, Singapore attracts the highest percentage of skilled migrants from Myanmar: civil and electrical engineers, medical personnel, planners and architects.
Myanmar men are subjected to forced labor abroad in fishing, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, and construction, while women and girls are primarily subjected to domestic servitude, or forced labor in garment manufacturing. Some Burmese men in the Thai fishing industry are subjected to debt bondage, passport confiscation, threats of physical or financial harm, or fraudulent recruitment; some others endure physical abuse and are forced to remain aboard vessels in international waters for years at a time without coming ashore. Traffickers use deceptive recruitment tactics and immigration status-based coercion to subject migrant workers from Myanmar Shan State to forced labor on sugarcane plantations in China’s Yunnan Province.
Communities displaced by environmental degradation resulting from the establishment and operation of these plantations, which are often Chinese-owned, are also vulnerable to trafficking, including on lands they previously occupied and through internal economic migration to other parts of the country. In Kachin State, men, women, and children are also at risk of forced labor in jade prospecting throughout refuse areas created by larger mining operations, as well as in road and dam construction.
On 3 July 2020 Hpakant, the centre of the world’s biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry bordering with China, was stroke by the deadliest disaster in years, which killed 166 poor migrants. Media report that Aung San Suu Kyi, speaking on a scheduled Facebook Live broadcast with representatives of the construction industry, bemoaned what she described as the need for informal workers to sift for jade because they lacked other ways of making a living. However, critics place the blame for such accidents on the legal mining operators and the government’s lax enforcement of safety measures.
Political and inter-communal conflicts have triggered large numbers of new displacements in Myanmar on a regular basis since the country’s independence in 1948. Despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire in 2015, several armed groups in Kachin, Shan and Chin states are still in active conflict with the military and regularly trigger displacement. An escalating conflict between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states triggered 80,000 new displacements in 2019. In Myanmar itself, UNHCR advocated the rights and status of some 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State, 140,000 of whom are internally displaced, as well as the protection of over 170,000 other IDPs throughout the country.
With more than 312,000 IDPs across the country, Myanmar adopted a national strategy on IDP camp closure and return in November 2019. The strategy refers to international standards including durable solutions, safety and dignity, voluntariness and sustainability, full enjoyment of human rights, non-discrimination, do no harm and humanitarian access.
Myanmar is a disaster prone country and in 2019 it recorded 270,000 disaster displacements, triggered by flooding and landslides brought on by monsoon rains. Mon state was worst hit, with 77,000 evacuations. People in many areas remained in shelters for several days and in some cases weeks while they waited for the floodwaters to recede. Farmers were particularly hard hit because crop damage was extensive.
The majority of refugees and stateless persons from Myanmar are Rohingyas, for whom durable solutions and access to basic rights such as freedom of movement, livelihoods and education remained elusive, whether at home in Myanmar or in exile abroad. In 2019 UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh jointly completed the registration of 784,000 Rohingyas, providing them with identity documents—many for the first time in their lives—and establishing a basis for their right to return to Myanmar. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) agreed to consider a case brought by The Gambia alleging that Myanmar committed genocide against Rohingyas, an accusation vigorously denied by the government.
As of end April 2020, there are some 177,800 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Some 153,060 are from Myanmar, comprising some 101,280 Rohingyas, 22,470 Chins, and 29,310 others from Myanmar.
Over the past five years, Myanmar has been the source country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking, both in the country and abroad. It is also increasingly a destination and transit country for foreign victims, including women and girls from India.
During 2019, police identified 335 victims of trafficking, including 64 men and 271 women. This marked a significant increase from receipt and identification of 312 foreign referrals in 2018 and 289 in 2017. The estimated numbers of trafficked women are however much higher.
One academic study found that 2,800 out of 5,000 Kachin and Shan women returning to Burma and experiencing forced marriage in China had also been subjected to forced childbearing.
Women are an easy prey for traffickers, especially in Kachin and Northern Shan, because it is where men are taking part in the armed conflict. Desperate to seek a job in China, even illegally, they are often enticed by someone they know and trust to find themselves trapped in China, Thailand and Malaysia. Many trafficked women suffer physical and emotional abuse, including sexual abuse, and only some of them manage to escape, but often without bringing their children, who are fathered by their buyers.
Enduring military conflict with EAGs in several areas in the country continued to dislocate thousands of Rohingyas and members of other ethnic minority groups, many of whom were at risk of human trafficking in Myanmar and elsewhere in the region as a result of their displacement.
National media like the Irrawaddy and the Myanmar Times have recently reported the work of the police in identifying and arresting traffickers and in setting up awareness campaigns and programs for the prevention and the protection of the victims of human trafficking. In 2019 the government continued to operate five centers for women and children who were victims of violent crime; all five could shelter trafficking victims, and one was dedicated to female trafficking victims. Another housed repatriated trafficking victims. Prior to their reintegration, these victims had the alternative option to stay in any of four transit centers run by the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement (MSWRR); these facilities were called “Women’s Vocational Training Centers,” and a fifth was in development at the end of 2019. The ATIPD (Anti-Trafficking in Persons Department) maintained a hotline and a social media account with information on trafficking, including updated law enforcement statistics. The government also trained 60 diplomats and 35 attachés on human trafficking during 2019, maintaining labor attachés in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Republic of Korea whose responsibilities included assisting trafficking victims. In the end ATIPD officers started liaison offices established by the UN and international organizations at the Chinese and Thai border to facilitate victim repatriation.
Myanmar’s two central international migration governance instruments are the Law Relating to Overseas Employment (LROE), enacted in 1999, and the National Plan of Action (NPA) for the Management of International Labor Migration, developed in 2013. The LROE sets out the basic architecture for managing international labor migration. It details registration procedures for workers, licensing processes for employment agencies, and a range of rights and responsibilities of both workers and employment agencies. The LROE also provides for the establishment of the Overseas Employment Supervisory Committee (OESC), which the law charges with providing the coordination and cooperation necessary to achieve the law’s objectives. A much more recent instrument, the NPA is a national policy document that includes four strategic areas of focus: the governance of migration, the protection and empowerment of migrant workers, the inclusion of migration in the national development agenda, and data collection and management. The National Plan of Action (NPA) accorded the Ministry of Labor (MoLIP), the principal role in nearly every action plan included within the NPA. Social partners were included in some implementation areas but overall were given an insignificant role in delivering the action plan.
Other national-level instruments that are relevant to the governance of international labour migration in Myanmar include: the Code of Conduct (CoC) for Overseas Employment Agencies; the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law and Laws relating to labour. The CoC, signed by over 100 recruitment agencies in August 2016, aims to foster ethical recruitment practices and improve the quality of services provided to migrant workers throughout the process of international migration. Developed through collaboration between the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF) and the MoLIP, with technical input from the ILO, the code puts in place a monitoring mechanism that sets a standard for recruitment agencies, enabling the ranking of agencies’ level of compliance with the code. Moreover, the CoC requires agencies that sign the code to coordinate and cooperate with government and civil society, from multi-stakeholder pre-departure training programs to dispute settlement mechanisms that connect recruiters to relevant government agencies.
The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law was passed in 2005, and criminalizes sex and labour trafficking in Myanmar, detailing a series of offences and penalties that differ according to gender, age, and the purpose of trafficking in a given incident. Myanmar ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols in 2005. Myanmar has also ratified three of the eight ILO Conventions such as Freedom of Association and Right to Organization Convention, 1948 (No. 87), Forced Labour Convention, 1930(No. 29), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).
The Government has been drafting and amending labour legislation to reflect this new environment and with the intention of complying with International Labour Standards. Thus, the legal environment in Myanmar is changing rapidly, with many draft laws currently under review and at various stages of the legislative process with various Ministries involved: MoLIP, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Planning and Finance. Currently the Government through the MoLIP has been drafting new Laws such as: the Foreign Workers’ Law and the Occupational Safety and Health Law for migrants’ workers in order to cater for the growing needs of migrants’ workers.
At the level of inter-State migration governance, Myanmar’s two bilateral MoUs with Thailand and Republic of Korea take the step of formalizing migration channels with key destination countries. The MoU signed in 2010 with the Republic of Korea, provides for formal migration through Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS). The MoU and Agreement on the Employment of Workers with Thailand, signed in June 2016, updates the initial MoU from 2003. In recent years, Myanmar’s specific bilateral migration cooperation with Thailand has taken shape around how to document and regularize the status of migrants who arrived in Thailand through irregular channels. The nationality verification process, which sought to confirm the citizenship status of Myanmar migrants, has now developed into a system to issue Certificates of Identity with the expectation that migrants will apply for full passports back in Myanmar before the certificates expire.
The Migration Division within MoLIP (Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population), the Overseas Employment Supervisory Committee, and the Parliamentary Committee on Local and Overseas Workers provide different opportunities for strengthening policy coherence in migration governance.
Other actors IOM Myanmar and ILO Myanmar play key roles in strengthening engagement with the planning processes of specific sectors, ministries, and international development partners.
UNHCR and UNDP have been closely following the MoU for activities in Rakhine State, extending their cooperation with the Government until June 2021.
Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) has been supporting communities in Rakhine since 2012 initially with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camp settings. Due to protracted crisis, multi-year programs for village-based community resilience in central Rakhine commenced in 2015 with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). These activities take place in conjunction with humanitarian responses to natural hazards.
This kind of response is carried out also by Malteser International Myanmar, which implements small-scale relief projects with local partners in Rakhine, Sha and Kayin offering comprehensive WASH and disaster risk reduction/climate change adaptation solutions to vulnerable communities since 2001.
Together with Episcopal Commission for Tourism and Migration, Caritas Myanmar has also established Myanmar Catholic Migration and Anti Human Trafficking Network (MCMAHTNet) to strengthen coordination and networking support structures for victims of trafficking. Collaboration with Good Shepherd Foundation Myanmar (Good Shepherd Sisters) has allowed providing socio-economic reintegration support to returning migrants and trafficked survivors. Good Shepherd Sisters are particularly active in supporting women and girls at risk of being trafficked and entertain constant relationships with Buddhist monks and Church and other religious services to reach out to people more in need.
JRS Myanmar is focusing on increasing the local capacity and education opportunities for IDPs affected by conflicts in Kachin State through teacher training, coaching and supervision, provision of teaching and learning materials, school renovation, and parental education.
Due to limited awareness about and public discussion of international migration for many years, actors and organisations involved in policy work in other policy areas – poverty alleviation, rural development, planning processes, social protection, and so on – may not actively seek to integrate migration-related policy concerns. Additionally, all main actors and organizations are constrained in what they can achieve in terms of actively inter-linking migration with other policy areas. Local Church actors could potentially be involved in strengthening coordination and networking with all main actors and organizations in the field.
No country can address the challenges and opportunities offered by migration alone, and Myanmar can benefit from the measures outlined in the UN Migration Compact and the Refugee Compact. National migration policies and the management of border control can constitute important priorities for ensuring safety, peace and development. The Church could contribute to the implementation of the Global Compacts by strengthening regional and national mechanisms to protect the most vulnerable migrants, to recognize citizenship to Rohingya refugees and to prevent human trafficking. Knowledge of the 1951 UNHCR Convention on the Status of Refugees should also be promoted.
Myanmar stands at a critical point in its democratic transition. On 13 July H.E. Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and Patron of Religions for Peace has called for the unity of the three main religions ahead of the elections and the 21st Panglong Peace Conference. The 2020 general elections, the renewed initiative for constitutional reform and the ongoing peace process present important opportunities to address the root causes of human rights violations against minorities, including migration and displacement and to shape a common vision for the future.