Sayama Jasmine, a teacher from Yangon, Burma moved to the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand in 1994 when she was 26 years old. Now, nearly 30 years later she is closely watching Burma’s 2020 general election, set to take place on 8 November 2020. She’s never voted, but says she would if she knew how.
Sayama Jasmine is one of approximately 3 million migrant workers from Burma living in Thailand with at least 50,000 in Mae Sot alone. Many of those working in thecountryrepresent different ethnic groups who crossed the border at different periods to flee conflict or to pursue economic opportunities, with the hopes of improving their livelihood. As a teacher, Sayama Jasmine provides Burmese lessons to children living in her neighbourhood. Her self-run school started with just a few students coming over in the evenings to study in her humble, wooden home, surrounded with posters displaying the alphabet and vocabulary. Sometimes, she says proudly,there are up to50 children at one time sitting in the small, modest space.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she was returning to Yangon every two years to visit her friends and family. Since Thailand closed its borders in March, she has been following Burma’s election through various news sources, predominantly by listening to BBC in Burmese.
The worsening human rights situation in Burma has led to mass voter discrimination. Most recently, after the Union Election Commission (UEC) canceled the election in over 50 townships; civilians and candidates expressed ‘shock and anger’, as the decision strips over 1 million voters of the right to participate. The UEC is considering more cancellations amid suspected military pressure, from whom they receive significant oversight. This has led to even more worries among civilians who have the most to lose in political warfare.
When COVID-19 lockdown measures in Thailand went into effect in March 2020, radio DJ Kaung Tip wasn’t able to go and broadcast her program at the recording station in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
Before the pandemic started spreading across the globe, Kaung Tip hosted a radio program on women and children’s health called “Heng Jai Ying” (Girl's Power), with the goal of informing her audience of Shan migrants about good health practices and the importance of maintaining good hygiene.
The Shan are an ethnic minority in east-central Burma. Although they share similar language and traditions to populations in northern Thailand, they’re a particularly marginalized group that have long suffered from systematic oppression from the Burma army, known as the Tatmadaw. In 1994, the military led a widespread offensive against the Shan in a scorched earth campaign that pushed over 300,000 people to flee their homes. Thousands of Shan people have been living and working in northern Thailand as migrants since then.
Before the pandemic, “Heng Jai Ying” was broadcasting four days a week. After it became clear that COVID-19 measures would keep her from speaking on air, Kaung Tip had to get creative fast, as thousands of listeners, Shan women in particular, relied on her voice. Seizing an opportunity to change the way Shan migrant listeners engage with the radio program, she began creating short videos that could be easily shared on social media.
| (A young woman carries a sign that reads “I want to stay in Bulgaria” during a protest in Varna, 14 July 2020. Image: Pavel Lozanov / Svobodna Evropa)
Bulgaria has been rocked by massive protests since early July, with tens of thousands of people out on the streets demanding the resignation of the Government and the Prosecutor General. People are angry about the wide-spread corruption and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small oligarchy while one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. Personally, I don’t think the Government’s resignation will bring about the desired change – protests, oligarchy, poverty and all-powerful Prosecutors General have been a permanent feature of life in Bulgaria for the past thirty years.* But this is not what this post is about and I do support the protests.
While following the news coverage of the protests, I was struck by how often migration and exploitation are referenced by the protesters. It’s very common to see people holding signs, or saying things like, “I want to stay here”, “I want the government to resign so that my children don’t have to leave this country”, “I want my children to return”, “I want to have a future in this country” (as a side note, although the words e/im/migration are widely understood in Bulgarian language, they are not commonly used – in everyday speech, people simply refer to leaving (or running away from!), staying in, or returning to the country, or going abroad). These references are so common because the experiences of migration – and exploitation – have become too familiar to too many Bulgarians.
Over the last five months, many reports and statements have alerted us about a possible rise in human trafficking during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. As we discussed this in some detail in a webinar hosted by the ILO last week and had released a statement on the topic earlier this year, I thought of doing a companion piece to my last week’s blog. My intention in going back to the same theme is to start an honest discussion with like-minded colleagues so that together we can take steps to turn this challenging time into a transformative one.
Some of the reports that talk about the possibility of a rise in trafficking cases during and after COVID-19 are very nuanced and cautious. They often start with disclaimers that it will not be possible at this stage to assess the impact of the pandemic on human trafficking. The authors go on to share data on the disruptions in assistance measures to trafficked persons during lockdown periods, inadequate healthcare for victims and caregivers in shelters, challenges of online counselling and delay in court proceedings and repatriation plans. These reports also detail the multiple vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers and those in the informal economy and argue that the impending global economic downturn will lessen people’s capacity to resist exploitation, including human trafficking.
Many statements, on the other hand, do not see any need to explain their claims, they just state that the pandemic will definitely result in a large number of people being trafficked. Some authors refer to specific groups of people such as children and migrant workers or people on a certain route such as the North Africa and Europe migration corridor. A few reports mention both trafficking and smuggling while others talk about trafficking and modern slavery. There are statements that elaborate on the similarity between COVID-19 and human trafficking. Some even go a step further and declare that human trafficking is the pandemic.