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The abuse of human rights in Myanmar have been in the international limelight for decades. Many people have been forced to leave their homes behind and have escaped to Thailand where they live in refugee camps. The people now living in the United States, Australia or Norway are largely resettled refugees. The number of refugees is small, however, compared to the number of labor migrants, who leave Myanmar for economic reasons. Decades of mismanagement have devastated the Myanmar economy, and it has become increasingly difficult for people to make ends meet. Many individuals and families seek economic improvement outside Myanmar and migrate to countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or Japan.


A profitable economy has developed around arranging employment and legal papers, organizing housing and planning trips. The destination labor migrants seek often depends on their skills and financial resources. Few families have the capacity to save enough money to pay for travel up front, so they rely on middle-men to borrow money to fund their journey. Singapore attracts many high-skilled migrants such as engineers and nurses who have a higher earning potential in Singapore than in Myanmar. Many individuals migrate to Singapore and send money to their families in Myanmar. Thailand hosts the largest number of migrants, because of the proximity and the comparatively low costs to move to places like Japan, Singapore or the Middle East. Most migrants work in factories, domestic settings, plantations, construction work or the service industry. Salaries and work conditions vary widely. In Thailand, for example, the closer migrants live to the shared border, the lower the salaries are. There are regular reports of labor rights violations, abuse at work places and stories of people who have accrued severe debts from borrowing money. For others, labor migration has helped to overcome absolute poverty and to increase their living standards.


There is domestic migration in Myanmar as well, and some people seek opportunities to work in larger cities like Yangon or Mandalay. For many people, however, it is  closer and more convenient to migrate to Thailand. Work opportunities in the urban centers are fairly limited.


Labor migration is shaping the contemporary landscape in Myanmar dramatically, and it is uncertain what long-term consequences it will have on families, communities and the country as a whole. Many migrants from rural areas already characterize their villages in Myanmar as deserted, where only the old and the young continue to live. Anybody able to work leaves their villages to earn more money elsewhere.


For a recent article on diaspora populations see Renaud Egreteaus’ piece “Burma in Diaspora: A Preliminary Research Note on the Politics of Burmese Diasporic Communities in Asia” in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 31.2 (2012): 115–147.