Thursday, September 19, 2013

At home in a Thai garbage dump, Myanmar illegal immigrants earn a living

A boy collects garbage at a garbage dump in Mae Sot in Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. He is among many illegal immigrants from Myanmar who opt to live and work there. (Shingo Kuzutani)
A boy collects garbage at a garbage dump in Mae Sot in Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. He is among many illegal immigrants from Myanmar who opt to live and work there. (Shingo Kuzutani)

MAE SOT, Thailand--Here in the northwestern part of the country, a one-square kilometer mound of trash is also home and workplace to some 500 illegal immigrants from Myanmar.

They came seeking a better income, and even since the democratization of Myanmar, their numbers are increasing.

The refugees make a living by sifting through and collecting garbage amid the foul smells and swarms of flies.

They carry large bags over their shoulders, and throw anything into them that can be sold for cash--plastic bottles, jars and steel cans.

Within the dumping grounds there are about 150 households, shacks covered with plastic-sheet roofs to keep rain away.

One is home to Aung Win, 50, and his wife, who arrived on the site seven years ago from Mawlamyine, a city in southern Myanmar. He earns up to 50 baht (150 yen, or $1.5) a day. Even though he earns only 20 baht on a bad day, he says it is still more than what he would earn in his homeland.

“I want to do other jobs if I could, but I don’t have a skill,” he said. “This is all I can do for living.”

Aung Win sends money to his two daughters who live in Myanmar every couple of months.

He said he plans to return home after saving up 15,000 baht.

“I don’t know how long it will take (until he can save that amount),” Aung Win said. “I would be happy to return as soon as Myanmar’s economy gets better.”

Children are also among the squatters working at the site.

Gote, 12, earns 20 to 30 baht a day.

The boy’s father drowned in a river along the Myanmar border.

His mother stays at home taking care of his older brother, who is ill in bed, he said.

“I want to work. So I am fine without attending school,” the boy said.

In order to work here, those aged 18 or older are required to pay 350 baht a year to the land owner.

Plastic bottles sell to recycle services for 20 baht per kilogram, while steel cans sell for 2.5 baht.

Since squatters are illegal immigrants, they sometimes face police crackdowns.

“Once arrested, they are sent back to Myanmar,” one resident said. “But most of them come back soon anyway.”


Members of Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups fled to Thailand as refugees during the 1980s, fleeing from the oppressive military government.

Since then there has been a constant stream of migrant workers from Myanmar. In recent years, the stream has become a large flow.

According to the Thai Ministry of Labor, there are about 1.45 million legally registered migrants from Myanmar, who have been granted with work permits.

Including illegal workers, the total number of immigrant workers is estimated around 2.5 million.

Disparities exist among Myanmar immigrant workers. Those who cannot read and write have a hard time finding work even at factories and construction sites.

A member of a nongovernmental organization helping refugees in Mae Sot said, “Some had started sorting garbage at dump sites, unable to find other jobs. Their relatives and acquaintances under similar circumstances came to live there.”

U.S. photographer Fred Stockwell has been active in supporting people living in Mae Sot’s garbage dumps.

Asked if they did not want to move to more hygienic places, Stockwell said, “There have been attempts to relocate immigrants, but only a few people have moved out.”

He added: “They have been there for 10 to 12 years. It is pretty much like a community. So they are reluctant about being relocated. They have families there and are quite accustomed to living that kind of life.”

Many groups actively support Myanmar’s refugees and immigrant workers in Mae Sot, where there are also medical clinics, kindergartens and schools that are practically free.

Although the dangers of working at a garbage dump cannot be ignored, many are attracted by the reality that a life at a garbage dump “is better than life in the homeland.”

(This article was written by Shingo Kuzutani in Mae Sot and Ryosuke Ono in Bangkok.)