ACTE - Sewing Woman | © Helvetas / Katrin Rosenberg

Overlapping Crises in Myanmar Threaten Migration as a Livelihood Strategy

FROM: Regis Blanc - 27. September 2022
© Helvetas / Katrin Rosenberg

In Myanmar, the political turmoil combined with the continued impact of Covid-19 and increasing inflation have had devasting consequences on populations that need to adapt and build coping mechanisms. In particular, the traditional rural-urban migration pattern, which widely contributes to the socio-economic development of the country, has been disrupted. A closer look at the evolution of this migration pattern reveals serious consequences for migrants and their families.

Migration has long served as a livelihood strategy that allows households to respond to shocks, diversify volatile household income, and improve social mobility and human security. Rural poverty, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, and fragile livelihoods comprise the key drivers of both domestic and international labor migration from Myanmar.

After the end of military rule in 2011, Myanmar experienced substantial economic, social and political changes. Labor migration increased and migrants widely contributed to the economic development of the country. Remittances sent by both internal and international migrants played a critical role in alleviating poverty, in particular in rural areas, though this is not reflected in official figures since the remittances often flow through informal channels.

Economic reforms actively promoted Myanmar’s shift from a largely agricultural-based economy to one based on manufacturing and services. As a consequence of this industrialization process, internal migration increased, mainly through the movement of people from rural areas to peri-urban and urban areas, contributing to the already existing trend of urbanization. Yangon is the main destination of internal migration, in particular for women migrants seeking work in garment factories.

However, a mainly informal and limited legal and regulatory framework for recruitment has led to unfair recruitment process of migration workers. Evidence shows that malpractice at the recruitment stage of migration can lead to increased exposure to vulnerabilities and abuses at the destination, including forced labor. Rapid changes to the nature of employment have also brought significant challenges for ensuring decent work conditions, especially in regards to minimum wage, overtime, accidents and lacking compensation payments, unlawful dismissal or harassment. Hence, internal migrants can be vulnerable during the migration cycle, both at the pre-departure stage and in the workplace. Women may be particularly vulnerable and face gender-specific vulnerabilities and risks throughout their migration trajectory. This is the context that Helvetas’ ACTE Project works within, with activities aimed at maximizing the positive impacts of migration on development and reducing the vulnerability of migrants and their families in Shwe Pyi Thar Township in Yangon.

Multiple crises’ impact on migration dynamics

Since February 2021, Myanmar has faced overlapping crises. Political turmoil, armed conflict, violence and insecurity have exacerbated the tremendous socio-economic and public health challenges related to the Covid-19 outbreak and its lockdowns. Inflation also drastically increased in 2022.

These crises have paralyzed the country and the economy and had a huge impact on workers and enterprises. There were supply chain disruptions, heightened precarious working conditions and the closure of many factories. The ILO estimates that 1.1 million fewer women and men in Myanmar were working relative to the level in 2020. In the first half of 2022, an estimated 19.3 million women and men were employed, which is a modest improvement compared to the 18.6 million estimated for 2021. But the number of employed working-age people was still far below the levels of employment seen before the military takeover. In addition, according to the ILO, “…the quality of jobs is under serious strain. Labour conditions are tenuous for many workers with severe incursions of labour rights.”

World Bank reports indicate that poverty doubled in 2022 compared to the level in March 2020; now, around 40% of the population is living below the poverty line. More than 14 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in the last Humanitarian Response Plan. And the Asian Development Bank projected that Myanmar’s annual GDP growth would be -18.4% in 2021.

As a consequence of these dire circumstances, affected populations have been adapting and building coping mechanisms, including through migration. Due to loss of jobs, unpaid wages, increased violations of labor rights and insecurity, hundreds of thousands of factory workers fled the industrial zones around Yangon for their home villages; a similar trend was experienced during the Covid-19 lockdowns. But the reduction of remittances sent by migrant workers from urban areas means that remittance-reliant home communities have little to offer those who return. Meanwhile, banking challenges (i.e., poor functionality, cash withdrawal limitations) exacerbated the loss of remittances from internal migrants and limited access to remittances from overseas. This situation led to increasing levels of debt for migrant families.

Faced with these challenging conditions in their area of origin, an unquantifiable share of workers went back to urban and peri-urban areas to look for employment in the still functioning factories. Numbers are missing and there is little research addressing this phenomenon. For those who live in urban and peri-urban areas, todays’ situation is very problematic. The cost of living has significantly increased and affordable housing is scarce, a problem compounded by the government closing many of Yangon’s slums. Continued curfews have put a limitation on available working hours, and wages and travel restrictions limit the mobility of populations. Lastly, discrimination is prevalent (workers were fired depending on their region of origin) and insecurity remains high, especially for migrants without ID and those living at hotels due to the closure of slums.

Some pre-crises research already highlighted the difficulties faced by urban migrants, such as over-stretched government services (e.g., access to water, sanitation and health), overcrowding, uncontrolled settlement, underemployment, and a lack of availability and access to healthy food options. It appears that the current situation is even more alarming for these populations – and, by extension, for all the families that strongly depend on their income – since the urban and peri-urban vulnerable populations were identified by the United Nations as disproportionally affected by the reduction in livelihood opportunities and access to basic services.

The question that arises is whether looking for labor opportunities in the cities, including Yangon, is still an option. Another trend observed over the last year shows that many migrants are looking to neighboring countries for opportunities. A survey conducted in late 2021 with a random sample of 3,000 adults shows that the number of people wanting to leave quadrupled in 2021. However, as highlighted by an ILO report, “…while, in theory, opportunities for regular migration are opening, as of March 2022 only a small number of migrants have been able to leave.” The increasing cost of migration, combined with bureaucratic delays, state-imposed barriers and unscrupulous brokers seeking to exploit the current crisis led people to consider using irregular channels, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Additional migration dynamics

It has been five years since more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.  Currently, more than 1.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) live in camps and informal displacement sites across Myanmar. According to OCHA update, of those who are displaced, 866,400 fled their homes since the 2021 military takeover. A further 346,600 people are in protracted displacement as a result of conflict prior to 2021, the majority of whom are in Rakhine State. Many of the new IDPs have been displaced multiple times.

Furthermore, the 4.25 million Myanmar migrants residing abroad face added pressures to increase remittances to family back home and postpone plans to return permanently to Myanmar.

An uncertain future for many

In view of the current dramatic situation faced by urban migrants and its socio-economic consequences for many families, there is a pressing need to put the spotlight on populations of migrant workers in urban areas. There are currently considerable emergency needs (see the Myanmar Crisis Response Plan 2022) and mid- to long-term needs that warrant the development of migrant-friendly urban planning, investment in sustainable urban infrastructure and more inclusive access to public services and facilities. Due to the lack of data, it is also important to further document the living and working conditions of urban populations and, more specifically, the impact of this evolving migration pattern and its broader consequences. Indeed, a whole system based on a certain remittance dependency is already collapsing. If the situation remains unaddressed, gaps will widen, the economic situation will worsen and development gains will be totally lost, leaving more and more people trying to flee the country.

How does Helvetas respond to this evolving issue?

The ACTE Project, which is implemented by Helvetas and its partners, has been providing access (partially virtually) to safe migration information, free legal assistance, vocational and soft skills training, financial literacy trainings, and career counselling as well as support for improved nutrition and hygiene practices, in particular for women migrant workers. As an alternative strategy to the closure of factories and lay-off of workers, the project also provided vocational skill trainings to foster employment and self-employment opportunities

The project has also strengthened the capacity of civil society organizations to support safe migration, labor rights and organizational development. The project adapts its activities where possible to the evolving context, and emergency cash assistance has been provided to vulnerable migrant workers to cover their essential costs for food, accommodation and transportation.

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