A second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that hit Thailand this month has left many Lao migrant workers simultaneously unemployed and unable to return home because the countries’ shared border is closed.
With no money coming in, several migrants told RFA they might not make rent this month and want to go home, while others said they were uncertain if they would be able to reenter Thailand at a later date if they returned to Laos.
From April to mid-December, Bangkok was reporting daily confirmed cases in the single and low double digits. But in late December, daily totals spiked into the mid to high hundreds, reaching a high of 809 on Dec. 21.
Since the onset of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Lao workers returned home, but those still in Thailand are unable to return, and they are unsure if immigration rules will allow them to reenter Thailand if they leave.
The legal status of many Lao migrants in Thailand depends on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on labor cooperation signed by the two governments in 2016. It limits the duration of their stay to two years, extendable for another two.
But with a shortage of jobs, return under the MOU does not appear to be guaranteed, they say.
Many of the unemployed migrants are toughing it out in Thailand, struggling to make ends meet in hopes of a return to normalcy sooner than later.
“There’s no work. They closed the store so there’s no money coming in, but I still have to pay for food and rent,” a Lao migrant, who had been working at a Bangkok toy store prior to the second wave, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“I want to go home. This situation is the same as the villagers back home who lost everything in floods this year. Where can I get money to buy food if there’s no place to work,” she said.
The migrant said she was aware of a hospitalized Lao man who became infected with COVID-19 when he visited the Mahaxay fish market in Samut Sakhon province, in the Bangkok metropolitan area, site of a recent major outbreak. Thai media reported 66 confirmed cases in the province.
Another migrant, a construction worker in the city of Rangsit, north of the capital, told RFA he also wanted to go home after losing his job, but returning is impossible right now because the border with Laos is closed.
“It’s like I’m stuck. It’s the same problem with COVID-19. I wish it would disappear soon. Also, if I were able to go home, I’m afraid that I won’t be able to come back to Thailand after COVID-19 is done. Nobody is sending money home, so I decided to stay in Thailand for now,” he said.
Another construction worker who lost a job in Bangkok told RFA that that he also wanted to return home in the New Year but did not know if it would be possible.
“I’ll go back but I can’t right now because they aren’t allowing anyone out. I can still legally stay in Thailand on the MOU, but I am not sure about that if I leave and come back,” he said.
The World Bank’s office in Laos reported this summer that more than 100,000 Lao migrant workers had returned from Thailand since the beginning of the pandemic, with estimates from NGO sources saying the number may have at that time been as high as 200,000.
Prior to the pandemic, about 300,000 Lao citizens were registered as workers in Thailand according to statistics from its labor ministry.
In an early assessment of the impact of the border shutdown on the economy of Laos, the World Bank estimated that remittances would fall by $125 million in 2020, amounting to about 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP.
An official at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs who requested anonymity told RFA told RFA that the migrants would have to wait until at least next year.
“A new announcement will come out, but right now travel is suspended because of new COVID-19 outbreaks in Thailand. Lao workers cannot enter the country at this time,” the official said.
The Lao government has also beefed-up border security to prevent illegal crossings. In Vientiane’s Sang Thong district, separated from Thailand by a walkable shallow stretch of the Mekong River, authorities have increased surveillance.
Laos has reported relatively few cases of the deadly virus within its borders. According to the Ministry of Health, the country confirmed only 41 cases, 40 of which made full recoveries. One remains in the hospital.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.