Abuse, Poverty and Migration: Expanding protection to migrants from Burma


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Abuse, Poverty and Migration: Expanding protection to migrants from Burma

Published date:
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

International reporting of the large-scale migration of those leaving Burma in search of work abroad has highlighted the perils for migrant during travel and in host countries. However, there has been a lack of research in the root causes of this migration. Identifying the root causes of migration has important implications for the assistance and protection of these migrants. Drawing on over 150 interviews with villagers in rural Burma and those from Burma who have sought employment abroad, this report identifies the exploitative abuse underpinning poverty and livelihoods vulnerability in Burma which, in turn, are major factors motivating individuals to leave home and seek work abroad.

Introduction and executive summary


"[T]he majority of the people in my village have come to work in Thailand. They don't want to stay in their village because they're afraid that they'll have to do forced labour."

- Ko M--- (male, 30), Th--- village, Dooplaya District, Karen State (Feb 2009)[1]


The majority of those leaving Burma have sought out employment opportunities abroad. An estimated 1 to 3 million people who have left the country currently reside in Thailand.[3] In Malaysia, the working population from Burma is estimated at 150,000[4] with a further 50,000 to 60,000 in Singapore.[5] Up to 100,000 ethnic Chin who have fled western Burma currently live in the north-eastern Indian state of Mizoram.[6] On top of this, approximately 200,000 Rohingya, also from western Burma, have settled in eastern Bangladesh and remain in what has been described as "precarious conditions in villages and semi-urban slums."[7]While Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continues to claim that the country has reached unprecedented levels of peace and development over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of Burmese residents continue to leave the country every year in order to find a way to survive. Indeed, all indications suggest that this flow of people is increasing.[2]

Only a small percentage of Burmese people who have moved abroad are legally recognised as refugees or otherwise officially acknowledged as forced migrants entitled to host-government or UN assistance. These include approximately 135,000 individuals residing within 10 refugee camps in Thailand, [8] about 1,500 UNHCR-recognised refugees in India[9] and 26,000 Rohingya residing within two officially recognised refugee camps in Bangladesh.[10]

While the expatriate migrant populations from Burma working abroad have been growing steadily for more than 20 years, the international community has only recently begun recognising the insecurity these people face at home, during migration and in their host countries. This heightened international awareness is partly due to the obvious increase in those leaving Burma and partly due to especially dramatic news reports on the struggles of Burmese migrants and asylum seekers. These reports include the April 2008 incident in which 54 individuals from Burma suffocated while being transported in a container truck to a work site in southern Thailand.[11] More recently, the large numbers of Rohingya boat people arriving in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have prompted international statements of concern and regional forums to discuss the issue.[12]

Concurrent with this mass influx of migrants into neighbouring countries, there have been ongoing debates about the appropriate definitions for classifying these migrants and how these people should be treated by host governments and international bodies. The key issue has been whether and how to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. Regional governments receiving large numbers of people from Burma have been particularly sensitive about the political and economic implications of their arrival. For example, in response to a journalist's question regarding the Rohingya boat people, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva replied, "Let's get that straight - they're not refugees, they're just illegal migrants."[13]

Approach of this report

Within the context of ongoing mass migration within and out of Burma and the ongoing debates about how these people are defined, this report seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What causes people to leave their homes in Burma and seek economic opportunities elsewhere?

  • Do international frameworks accurately reflect these causes and address the protection needs of these people?[14]

To answer these questions, this report draws on two separate data sets consisting of over 150 interviews collected and translated by KHRG researchers between August 2007 and March 2009. The findings of this research strengthen and give a human face to the main assertion of this report: the vast majority of those who leave Burma and seek work abroad are not leaving home simply to find better economic opportunities as a matter of personal convenience, but are instead fleeing life-threatening poverty that is a direct result of exploitative SPDC policies.

The first data set is comprised of 128 interviews conducted with residents of SPDC-controlled areas in Karen State from late 2007 to the end of 2008. These areas include Pa'an, Dooplaya, Thaton and Nyaunglebin districts. This report focuses on the most heavily SPDC-controlled parts of Karen State in order to examine the everyday exploitative abuses common under SPDC rule in rural areas and the impact those abuses have on poverty, livelihoods vulnerability and food insecurity. Furthermore, it is primarily from SPDC-controlled areas (rather than more contested areas like mountainous northern Karen State) that migrant workers typically come. This report uses both the statistical data and personal testimonies from these interviews to discuss the environment of human rights abuse and resulting poverty in those districts.

The second data set is comprised of 27 interviews conducted with individuals from Burma currently living and working in Thailand that were held between January and March 2009. These interviews were designed in order to find out the reasons why these people decided to leave Burma. While there were five interviewees who came from urban areas (Rangoon, Moulmein and Pegu Town), over 80% originally came from rural parts of Eastern Burma. Interviewees were asked to describe their former lives, including their professions in Burma, cost of living, factors influencing their choice to leave home and whether they had endured any human rights abuses in their home areas. The data and quotes taken from these interviews help to illuminate the relationships between abuse, poverty and migration.

Of course, there is no way to establish how many of those who were interviewed in Karen State and cited abuse subsequently decided to leave Burma to find work abroad. Therefore, these two data sets should be viewed as complementary rather than directly linked. With that in mind, KHRG wished to see whether the abuses which migrants cited as factors compelling them to leave Burma resembled those that were cited by residents of Karen State. As this report will demonstrate, the abuses cited in the two data sets are extremely similar. Both current residents of Karen State and those from Burma now working in Thailand overwhelmingly cited exploitative demands and restrictions as being the most prevalent forms of abuse which they sustained or witnessed in Burma. Furthermore, interviewees explained that these abuses significantly eroded financial and food security.

The match between these data sets suggests that SPDC abuses in rural Burma contribute to a life-threatening level of poverty for villagers and that that poverty, in turn, forces villagers to leave their homes and seek work abroad in order to survive.

Framing migration

Conventionally, classification as a refugee or internally displaced person (IDP), as opposed to an economic migrant, is based on what push and pull factors influence individual acts of migration. Whereas push factors refer to undesirable conditions at places of origin which 'push' people to seek a better situation elsewhere, pull factors refer to those positive features of a new location which 'pull' individuals towards it.

Refugees and IDPs are understood to have had little choice about migrating and were pushed out of their homes. More specifically, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as those who have been compelled to leave their country of origin due to persecution on grounds of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Less conventionally, the term has been used by some advocates and aid agencies to also cover those who have fled imminent physical threats due to armed conflict or natural disasters. The definition of IDPs, according to the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, includes those displaced by persecution, armed conflict, violations of human rights, natural disasters or large-scale development projects, but who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border.

By contrast, economic migrants are understood as individuals who, while able to remain at their places of origin, freely choose migration in order to access better economic opportunities abroad. The choice made is often viewed as a matter of personal convenience rather than survival. Ultimately, refugees and IDPs are seen as being pushed from their homes (and hence have no choice), while economic migrants supposedly decide freely to be pulled towards better economic opportunities abroad.

KHRG's research findings

Framing KHRG's research in terms of push and pull factors is not an abstract exercise - policymakers in governments and international bodies use these distinctions in order to determine who receives vital humanitarian aid as well as legal and other protection. And what KHRG's research demonstrates is that there is no strict separation of push and pull factors when it comes to people who leave Burma.

In Data Set 1, the information collected from 128 interviews which KHRG conducted in SPDC-controlled Karen State indicate that the overwhelming majority of abuses faced by villagers in these areas are exploitative in character and significantly impact poverty, livelihoods vulnerability and food insecurity.[15]

The most prevalently cited abuses found in these interviews were forced labour (47% of interviewees), extortion (29%), looting by SPDC and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) forces (14%) and movement restrictions (12%) - all abuses used to exploit villagers' resources. While less frequently cited, cases of arbitrary taxation were also noted by interviewees as a form of exploitation in Karen State.[16] In addition to these exploitative abuses, interviewees also cited incidents of arbitrary arrest, executions, intimidation, landmines, scorched earth tactics (such as razing whole villages, farm fields and food stores and killing livestock) and torture.

Data Set 2 contains information taken from 27 interviews KHRG conducted with Thailand-based Burmese migrants between January and March 2009. Out of the 27 individuals interviewed, 21 (roughly 78%) cited exploitative abuses (most commonly committed by SPDC soldiers and other State authorities) as factors that negatively affected their economic situations in Burma. The exploitative abuses cited by this group of interviewees included: forced labour, arbitrary taxation, extortion and land confiscation as well as movement restrictions used to facilitate demands. Out of these, forced labour was the single most common form of abuse, with 19 people (about 70%) citing it as a regular occurrence in their home communities.

Blurring the line between push and pull factors

Thailand-based interviewees explained to KHRG how exploitative abuses increased poverty, livelihoods vulnerability and food insecurity for themselves and their communities in Burma. These issues were in turn cited as central push factors compelling them to leave their homes and search for work abroad. In some cases, interviewees explained that the harmful effects of exploitative abuse were compounded by environmental and economic factors such as flood and drought and limited access to decent wage labour.[17]

While the individuals interviewed by KHRG in Thailand would normally be classified as 'economic migrants', the factors which they cited as motivating their choice to migrate make it clear that SPDC abuse made it difficult for them to survive in their home areas. Hence, these people decided to become migrants not simply because they were lured to Thailand by economic incentives, but because they found it impossible to survive at home in Burma. Clearly, the distinction between push and pull factors is blurred in the case of Burmese migrants.

The concept of pull factors for migrants is further complicated because migrants are not merely seeking better jobs abroad, but are instead pulled to places like Thailand and Malaysia in order to access protection. For refugees and IDPs, protection is a service that is often provided by government bodies, UN agencies and international NGOs. For refugees in particular, protection is often primarily understood to mean legal protection against refoulement - defined as the expulsion of a person to a place where they would face persecution. Beyond legal protection against refoulement, aid agencies have implemented specific forms of rights-based assistance, such as gender-based violence programmes, as part of their protection mandates.

However, for migrants from Burma the act of leaving home is overwhelmingly a self-initiated protection strategy through which individuals can ensure their and their families' basic survival in the face of persistent exploitative and other abuse in their home areas. This broader understanding of protection goes beyond legal protection against refoulement and the top-down delivery of rights-based assistance by aid agencies. It involves actions taken by individuals on their own accord to lessen or avoid abuse and its harmful effects at home.[18]

KHRG has chosen to use the term self-initiated protection strategy, rather than a more generic concept like 'survival strategy', in order to highlight the political agency of those who choose such migration. By seeing this protection in political terms, one can better understand both the abusive underpinnings of migration from Burma as well as the relevance of such migration to the protection mandates of governments, UN agencies and international NGOs currently providing support to conventional refugee populations. Understanding protection in this way presents opportunities for external support for the many self-initiated protection strategies (including efforts to secure employment without exploitation, support dependent family members, enrol children in school and avoid arrest, extortion and deportation) which migrant workers regularly use.

International frameworks and their application

Given the factors prompting people to leave Burma in search of work abroad, most of these individuals can be most accurately understood as livelihoods refugees. These individuals have legitimate protection concerns and use their own self-initiated protection strategies (i.e. becoming migrants and taking on employment) in order to survive.

Keeping in mind the various reasons influencing migration from home areas in Burma, the second of this report's questions can now be addressed: do existing international human rights laws, frameworks and norms accurately reflect the causes of emigration from Burma and address the protection needs of these migrant populations? After examining those laws and norms, it becomes clear that the answer is a definitive no.

Despite the multiple, often overlapping, motivating factors in migration, current international legal regimes and norms attempt to place Burmese who leave their homes into one of three narrow, often rigidly-defined categories: refugees, IDPs or economic migrants.

Of these three categories, people who are referred to as 'economic migrants' are by far the most poorly defined, least protected group. Indeed, for several decades now, legal thinkers and policymakers alike have struggled to create a satisfactory definition of what constitutes an economic migrant. An issue that has contributed to this legal stalemate is the problem of delineating between voluntary and involuntary migration. As has been discussed above, many people continue to assume that economic migration is a choice that is freely made by the migrant. While that might be true in some countries, the findings of KHRG's interviews with Burmese migrants makes it clear that the decision to migrate from Burma often isn't solely made out of a desire to find marginally better financial security, but is often made because it is the only way that that person or family can survive.

In stark contrast to the case of economic migrants, the international legal protection afforded to refugees is by far the most robust of the three frameworks examined here. Its strength derives in large part from a long-established international consensus that protection must be given to people who are forced to leave their home countries due to political and social persecution. But for a country of over 50 million people who live under SPDC oppression, there are not only more refugees than are currently recognised, but also millions of Burmese who have been labelled 'economic migrants' but have in fact fled the country in order to survive. The interviews conducted by KHRG both within Karen State and abroad indicate that many Burmese have left their homes not because they were specifically identified for political or social persecution, but because they lived in a state of life-threatening poverty that was created by exploitative SPDC policies.

The strength of the current normative regime for protecting internally displaced persons (IDPs) lies midway between that for economic migrants and that for refugees. While the IDP norms, as enshrined in the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, are better defined and recognised by more policymakers than those for economic migrants, they also have not been codified as international law and so are weaker than the legal protection regime for refugees. But these IDP protection norms, like those for refugees, prioritise people perceived to be under immediate physical threats, whether due to persecution, warfare, 'situations of generalised violence', human rights violations or natural or human-made disasters. As many people migrate within Burma for the same reasons as those who leave the country, such a definition again fails to accurately address the complex factors that lead many to leave their homes.

The fundamental lack of a legal and normative protection framework for migrants fleeing conditions of life-threatening poverty that result from abuse shows how currently out of sync the international legal community is with the reality faced by people living in rural Burma. That so many people are left without a single, coherent legal and normative protection framework only maintains the state of vulnerability that these people tried to flee when they left their homes in Burma. This evidence should lead policymakers to seriously question their current conceptions of economic migration out of and within Burma and what, if anything, separates such people from those who are commonly classified as IDPs or refugees.


Systematic exploitation and other abuse within Burma are root causes of migration out of the country and need to be addressed. However, so long as this abuse and migration continue, action can and should be taken to assist vulnerable populations from Burma now working abroad.

Expand protection

International agencies, governments and humanitarian organisations currently (or potentially) operating on Burma's borders and providing assistance to conventional refugee populations should acknowledge the legitimate protection concerns of those from Burma now engaged in work outside of officially-recognised refugee camps. Once these bodies have recognised that the line drawn between migrants and refugees from Burma is unsatisfactory, they should then endeavour to expand their current protection mandates beyond a narrow refugee population in order to truly reflect the root causes of abuse that motivate so many to leave home in Burma and seek out work abroad.

Agencies and organisations engaged in protection work should strive to understand the particular human rights challenges as defined by migrant workers themselves and support the self-initiated protection strategies which these individuals are already employing. Also, host governments and the international community should increase financial, logistical and political support for local and international NGOs engaged in protection work with migrant communities from Burma. Where host-government restrictions are the primary barriers to expanding legal, humanitarian and other assistance to vulnerable migrants engaged in paid labour, advocacy with domestic authorities may be necessary to amend restrictive policies.

Establish international frameworks

On the international legal and political level, policymakers should work to establish laws and norms that more accurately take into consideration the causes that lead people to leave their homes in Burma and similar situations elsewhere. Efforts must be made to create a separate, strong international regime that can better protect vulnerable migrants from Burma and elsewhere who take on employment abroad and lack camp-based, or other officially-sanctioned, refugee protection. One option is to create a normative framework for such migrants similar to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement that would, rather than creating an entirely new legal or normative regime, instead take advantage of those human rights-related laws that are already widely recognised and codified in international law.


There is an inevitably long fight to be had in order to establish an effective and appropriate international legal protection framework for migrants. However, concrete steps must, and can, be taken now to effectively address the needs (and support the self-initiated protection strategies) of the millions of Burmese migrants who are currently living away from their homes in Burma and who lack officially-recognised refugee status.

Along with the specific recommendations included here, this report aims to stimulate a serious discussion of the causes of migration from Burma, the limits of international protection mechanisms for these migrants and possible initiatives to more effectively address migrants' protection needs. While the findings presented here are strengthened by thousands of similar interviews conducted by KHRG over the past 17 years, this report should also serve as a prompt and model for further research by other organisations and agencies engaged in refugee and migrant protection and advocacy.

Table of Contents

Introduction and executive summary 2
    Notes on the Text 12
    Terms and Abbreviations 13
    Map 1: Karen Districts 14
    Map 2: Burma 15
Background 16
Data Set 1: Abuses in SPDC-controlled areas of Karen State 19
Data Set 2: Push factors and migrant statements 27
Data Set 2: Pull factors 38
International frameworks 45
Expanding protection 54


[1] For this and other interviews conducted with individuals from Burma currently residing abroad, their place of origin, rather than their current location, is given in the quote tag.

[2] See, for example, Burmese Refugees: End the exploitation of Burmese in Thailand, Refugees International, November 29th 2007 and Peter Biro, "The plight of Thailand's migrant workers," Reuters, March 19th 2009.

[3] See, for example, "Myanmar's overflow," The Economist, March 19th 2009 and Kavi Chongkittavorn, "How Far Will the Thai Govt Really Go to Protect Migrant Workers?," The Irrawaddy, March 11th 2009.

[4] "Malaysian, Thai Officials Trafficking Burmese Migrants?," IPS, January 26th 2009.

[5] "Burmese migrants in dire straits post meltdown," Independent Mon News Agency, December 8th 2008.

[6] "We are Like Forgotten People' The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India," Human Rights Watch, January 2009.

[7] Chris Lewa, "Asia's new boat people," Forced Migration Review 30: 40 - 41, April 2008, p.40.

[8] "Burmese border refugee sites with population figures," Thailand Burma Border Consortium, March 2009. The Thai government does not officially recognise those residing within Thailand-based camps as refugees but as persons "temporarily fleeing fighting."

[9] UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, 2005, United Nations High Commission for Refugees. More recent UNHCR Statistical Yearbooks do not divide countries' refugee population statistics by country of origin. Human Rights Watch reported in January 2009 ("We Are Like Forgotten People" The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India) that 1,000 Chin people - the largest ethnic group amongst Burmese refugees in India - had been granted UNHCR-recognised refugee status.

[10] Chris Lewa, "Asia's new boat people," Forced Migration Review 30: 40 - 41, April 2008, p.40.

[11] "Burma migrants suffocate in lorry," BBC, April 10th 2008.

[12] "UN to boost focus on Myanmar's Muslim boat people," AFP, March 12th 2009.

[13] "Lunch with the FT - Abhisit Vejjajiva," Financial Times, February 13th 2008.

[14] While this report focuses on the specific causes of migration from Burma, the wider issues discussed below - including appropriate definitions for various types of migrants and current international protection frameworks for migrants - apply to many countries. Indeed, this report seeks to both address the specific problems that currently plague people who leave their homes in Burma and the international community's failure to protect any people who migrate because they are no longer able to access basic goods and rights at home. Burma requires special attention because of the SPDC's especially harsh and widespread abuses against its own citizens, especially those in the rural areas of the state. With that said, many of the points discussed below can - and should - be applied to other cases of exploitation and mass migration currently taking place in other areas of the world.

[15] While some interviewees also cited forms abuse typically associated with overt armed conflict and persecution (often connected to SPDC and DKBA counter-insurgency operations), these cases were fewer in number. However, it is important to note that even those abuses seemingly connected to armed conflict and persecution are also frequently used to facilitate exploitation (such as where forced relocation into SPDC-controlled sites or arbitrary detention are used to extort funds).

[16] While KHRG has in other reports documented cases of arbitrary taxation by Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) troops, none of the interviewees cited in this report specifically identified any demands by KNLA personnel.

[17] There were also a few cases cited of persecution and harassment on political grounds, including three incidents of arbitrary detention and four incidents of intimidation.

[18] This approach is in line with that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which defines protection as: "all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law)" (Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 1999, p. 4.). In practice, such protection covers strategies aimed at, amongst other things, preventing and mitigating abuse (Growing the Sheltering Tree: Protecting Rights through Humanitarian Action, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2002, p. 11-12.).