Workers and students from all walks of life are fleeing Myanmar amid a collapse in the country’s job market, a plummeting kyat and massive inflation in the price of basic goods.
Ma Khaing waits patiently at the end of a long queue leading to the doors of Yangon’s central passport office. She is joined by two of her close friends, and there is tangible anticipation in the air; all three are applying for their first passport and are eager to leave Myanmar.
It’s 5am on a Monday morning, yet ahead of the 28-year-old a crowd of several hundred people are already waiting in line. Thousands of Myanmar citizens like Ma Khaing now visit passport offices every working day, in search of a passport that will allow them to seek work or study overseas.
Many of those standing in line told Frontier that they had been queuing from as early as 4am.
“I am trying to leave my beloved country to seek a job abroad. I have a cousin in Malaysia who is working as a construction worker, and I plan to join them in a few months,” said Ma Khaing.
Ma Khaing lost her job working at a hotel when COVID-19 hit, and started working at her mother’s neighbourhood food stall.
“But over the past few months, we haven’t made any money as prices have increased so much. So I decided to talk to my cousin in Malaysia, who suggested I go there to work construction,” she added.
“I don’t want to leave my mother, but I’ve got absolutely no choice. I need to feed my family and save for my future, because I don’t see it here anymore.”
Some people are trying to bypass the lengthy queues by using brokers, who charge up to K300,000 [US$90 at the market exchange rate] to exploit their relationship to passport office employees and fast track a client’s often lengthy application process. A quick exit from Myanmar is what most are here for.
Growing inflation is contributing to an exodus which began after the military violently suppressed protests following the February 2021 coup. The cost of many basic goods, including fuel, rice, medicines and edible oils, has ballooned in recent months on the back of a raft of disastrous policy choices by the junta-controlled Central Bank of Myanmar.
Primary among these, an aggressive de-dollarisation of the economy has triggered a drastic fall in imports and a collapse in the value of the kyat. Myanmar’s currency, which sat within a relatively stable range of K1,300-1,400 against the dollar before the coup, fell lower than K4,000 over the first week of September on the black market.
Lawful migration resumes
A recent easing of regional COVID-19 rules and quarantine regulations, which had made travel prohibitively expensive and difficult for many Myanmar people, is also encouraging the recent surge in migration.
In August, the Myanmar embassy in Seoul said that 1,073 Myanmar workers had entered South Korea since entry restrictions were lifted that month. Most are workers who have previously held jobs in South Korea’s agricultural sector re-entering the country.
Thailand is the host of the largest Myanmar diaspora, and from May 10 essential workers from neighbouring countries including Myanmar were able to return to the country under the Memorandum of Understanding system. The MoU system is a series of bilateral agreements between Thailand and Myanmar aimed at creating mutually beneficial exchanges of labour, information and expertise to boost economic growth and promote job creation.
The most apparent outcome of the MoU system is the way in which Thailand uses it to overcome the country’s chronic labour shortages. April figures from Thailand’s Ministry of Labour show that over 1.2 million Myanmar migrant workers are living in the country lawfully, constituting roughly 70 percent of all documented foreign workers.
In the month following the resumption of the MoU system, domestic and foreign employment agencies reported lawfully transporting more than 700 Myanmar migrant workers to Thailand every day of the week. Most MoU workers entered Thailand through the Myawaddy-Mae Sot border gate, which reopened to MoU workers in May. Thai authorities previously closed the border crossing in March of 2020, during the COVID-19 first wave.
However, systemic bottlenecks remain. Ma Su Yee, an agent from the Pwint Phoo Aung agency, which has recently sent 333 workers to Thailand under MoU arrangements, told Frontier on August 29 that, for the time being, most MoU positions have already been filled. She is also dealing with an increase in scammers targeting her potential client base.
“We have suspended our services until next month, but we still have many phone calls and job seekers coming into our office every day,” she said.
“First off, we help them with getting a passport. Then we consult on what they want to do and where. But now, we only say how much it costs to get a job abroad to those who visit our office in person, as there are a lot of scammers using our business name to defraud job seekers,” she added.
Su Yee said that there has been a marked increase in people using her company name to attract clients who later have their fees stolen, or are transported across the border illegally and left without work.
According to statistics from the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation, a recruitment agency watchdog that was reshuffled after the coup, around 25,000 casual workers entered Thailand from Myanmar under the MoU system each month during the pre-COVID period.
The junta’s Labour Attache Office recently said in a Facebook post that in May and June of this year, a total of 9,328 people were placed in jobs in Thai companies under the MoU, or roughly 4,700 per month, well below pre-COVID levels.
Migrant groups say the decrease in people applying for the MoU process is due to the costs, difficulties and timeframes encountered when migrating through official channels. As migrants find it both cheaper and more expedient to pay an illegal agent to traffic them to Thailand, this black market has swelled and continues to be a popular means of escape from Myanmar.
Tens of thousands of Myanmar citizens, fleeing violence and economic decline, made the border crossing clandestinely during the 26-month closure of the Thai-Myanmar border gates. Many are now living in Thailand illegally or awaiting refugee asylum claims to be processed.
From the February coup until the end of 2021, between 60,000 and 80,000 people were arrested for illegally entering Thailand, according to MOEAF. The Thai Border Guard Force told media that an additional 12,000 were arrested between January and April this year. Most of those arrested had been duped into paying brokers THB23,000–25,000 ($625-680) for the guarantee of a job placement in Thailand.
MOEAF says it believes that in excess of 100,000 additional Myanmar residents have successfully gained housing and employment in Thailand without proper documentation since the coup, yet most sources Frontier spoke to suggested that the actual number is far higher.
Barriers and risks remain
Static wages and rising living costs mean that, for many, it no longer makes economic sense to remain in Myanmar. Tens of thousands of workers, from highly-skilled professionals to casual labourers, have left in recent months. Since the coup began, that figure stands in the hundreds of thousands. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates are perennially favoured destinations, and are countries in which many find it possible to acquire legal status and live more securely than in present-day Myanmar.
However, simply leaving Myanmar now poses significant additional risks. From last October, the junta’s Ministry of Immigration and Population began establishing multiple checks on those exiting the country, and announced that citizens travelling to work overseas must provide border authorities with an Overseas Worker Identification Card, a document granted under tight scrutiny by the ministry in Nay Pyi Taw.
Many believe the stringent measures have been put in place to keep dissidents and opponents of the coup inside, within the grasp of the junta. With land borders still mostly closed, and authorities only allowing certain types of goods and migrant workers to cross, a lot of people need to exit the country by flying from Yangon International Airport – a journey which, following a number of high-profile detentions, strikes fear into many travellers.
Women like passport seeker Ma Khaing, who are rushing to leave the country to seek work and financial security abroad, also face being scammed by disingenuous brokers who receive huge sums of money from prospective migrants before vanishing with the cash. The other major risk for migrant workers is being trafficked abroad to jobs that are either dangerous or non-existent.
In August, eight Myanmar women claimed in a Facebook video that a broker had promised them jobs and taken them to Dubai. They pleaded for help, saying that they had instead been locked in a small room for three months and were told they would be sent to Iraq unless they paid a ransom of 10 million kyat ($3,000) each.
The Myanmar Police Force later said that a group of Myanmar nationals had recruited the women with promises of well-paid work. They said that the gang had sold the women to individuals across the Middle East region and was preparing to traffic them to other destinations. On September 9, the junta reported via a Telegram channel that the women had been rescued and returned to Myanmar. Alleged members of the trafficking gang in both Myanmar and Dubai were arrested, with unverified reports circulating that they had trafficked over 100 women.
The allure of a brighter future
It’s not only blue-collar workers that are being driven from Myanmar by the post-coup economic crisis. Large numbers of professionals are also leaving in search of better opportunities, contributing to the country’s latest brain drain.
31-year-old Ko Daniel*, who is from Yangon’s Hlaing Township, was a sales executive at a leading multinational company with offices in Myanmar. He moved to Bangkok two months ago in search of work.
“It’s not working out well there [in Myanmar]. I left my wife and my son to find a job here first. Then I plan to bring them here,” he said.
“I can easily earn K1 million a month in Myanmar,” said Ko Daniel. That salary translated to around $752 before the coup, but is now worth only $303 at market exchange rates. “It’s not easy to survive there anymore,” he added. “We have many expenses and prices keep rising every day.”
He’s determined to make a success of his new life in Thailand. “It’s really difficult to find a job here since there is a language barrier and I just started learning Thai. But I am trying my best and working as hard as I can – I don’t want to live in Myanmar anymore and I need to think of my son’s future,” he said.
Ko Kyaw Zin, an entrepreneur who left Myanmar to work in Thailand’s tech sector, told Frontier that life was now easier, and that he had been offered many opportunities to work with large companies since arriving in the capital.
“Of course I miss home. Who would wish to be forced to stay in a country that wasn’t his own? We were given no choice after the coup last year; every business is failing,” he said.
“Those still in Myanmar are living a nightmare. Commodity prices are overwhelming people who the junta is already squeezing the income from… Everyone is really suffering over there,” he added.
Some are even relocating to Europe, especially those who were fortunate enough to be educated there. In early August, the French embassy in Yangon announced on its Facebook page that its consular department had experienced an unprecedented increase in visa applications for short and long-term residence visas in July.
In search of an education
Myanmar’s students are also moving away. The country’s education system, now under the control of the military, has floundered following the mass boycott known as the Civil Disobedience Movement. Hundreds of thousands of teachers and students have refused to return to the classroom since the coup, forcing the junta to recruit untrained civilians who are sympathetic to the military into teaching positions. Armed soldiers are now a common fixture in playgrounds and classrooms across the country.
To continue their children’s education, some parents are opting to send them abroad. Universities – especially those in Thailand, Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom, always popular destinations for Myanmar people in higher education – are experiencing unprecedented numbers of applications from Myanmar students, according to the Myanmar Study Abroad website that offers advice to students who wish to study abroad.
“We can’t predict what is going to happen here [in Myanmar] for the foreseeable future, so I decided to send my son to study in Thailand where I can easily visit him any time I want,” said Daw Kay Khine, 45, who lives in Yangon’s Insein Township.
“And it’s not safe here anymore. I am concerned about my son. He could be locked up in jail at any time, on any fabricated charge. It’s hard to live with the uncertainty,” she said, adding that the military is detaining innocent teenagers at random and charging them with being members of People’s Defence Forces, which are anti-coup armed groups.
Japan has been a destination favoured by those moving away from Myanmar since before the 1988 uprising. On August 5, test centres released dates for the sitting of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (N4 level). Images of scores of students running down Yangon’s arterial Pyay Road to register for the exam before it was booked out went viral on Facebook.
Japan is not an easy option. Students say that passing the language proficiency test is very difficult, while for those wishing to become qualified elderly carers, a visa alone will cost over K700,000 ($2,200), an amount that exceeds Myanmar’s annual per capita GDP.
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test has five levels – N1 to N5 – and those attempting to find work in skilled occupations must at least pass the N3 exam. Myanmar people looking to become skilled apprentices in trades and professions in Japan must pass all five levels before being granted an entry visa.
The challenge has not deterred some job seekers. 24-year-old Sanchaung Township resident Ko Aung Khant told Frontier that he had passed the N3 exam in the last week of August, and is awaiting a visa to join fellow classmates to work in Japan.
“It’s got to the point where I really want to go as fast as I can. If it were possible, I’d leave tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s really depressing sitting around at home, with prices steadily rising, day-in, day-out. Another threat we face is that we must all now be careful when we go outside,” he said, mentioning that soldiers, who are still ubiquitous on Yangon’s streets, regularly check mobile devices to find evidence of anti-coup activities. Younger people in particular are being targeted, he said.
“Everything here is getting worse every day. I don’t see a future at all. Sometimes I wonder why I still choose to survive in this situation. My parents won’t let me go to the jungles to fight the junta, so I decided to find money and donate to revolutionary forces. But still, I am stuck here.”
* denotes the use of pseudonym for safety reasons