UN: Asia-Pacific Nations Must Vaccinate Migrants Against COVID-19

Pimuk Rakkaman and Nontarat Phaicharoen
UN: Asia-Pacific Nations Must Vaccinate Migrants Against COVID-19 Myanmar migrant-worker families sit on the sidewalk while passing their time under lockdown at the Samut Sakhon Shrimp market in Samut Sakhon province, Thailand, Jan. 26, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has stigmatized and stranded migrants who should be vaccinated promptly and valued as essential to the region’s economic recovery, a senior United Nations official said Wednesday as an international conference on migration opened in Bangkok.

The Asia-Pacific’s migrant workforce – which comprises 40 percent of the world’s migrants – symbolizes the region’s dynamism, said Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, a U.N. undersecretary-general and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

“The effects [of the pandemic] on migrants have been devastating. … They have lost jobs and livelihoods,” Armida said in a speech to open the three-day intergovernmental meeting here.

“They have been stranded by closed borders. They have been forcibly returned to countries of origin and have faced discrimination, stigma and xenophobia.”

Migrants faced all these problems even as they were more susceptible to being infected by COVID-19 because of the kind of work they do, Armida added.

“Migrants will be crucial to the long-term recovery of countries and their contribution to our society must be recognized and valued. They must be included in vaccination programs because … we are only safe when everyone is safe,” she said.

In Thailand and its neighbors, shutting the borders was the main method of controlling the pandemic, but poor messaging implied that the migrant community was a threat to public health, Don Pramudwinai, Thailand’s foreign minister, said in a speech at the forum.

“Cross-border movement was halted when the challenges in migrants began in earnest. In fact, this pandemic has increased [migrants'] vulnerability, especially the obstacle to access health care and social security,” Don said.

“Worse still, misinformation and insensitive messaging in some cases have cast migrants as a threat to public health and security. This must be rectified.”

In December, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and health officials had said that foreign workers who entered the country illicitly were the likely source of a record outbreak of coronavirus cases detected then at Thailand’s largest seafood market complex.

The complex in Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok is staffed mostly by hundreds of migrants from Myanmar, many of whom were found infected with COVID-19.

Thailand hosts some 2.2 million legal migrant workers.

BenarNews contacted Samut Sakhon health officials to find out whether, and how many, migrants had been inoculated against coronavirus since vaccinations began in late February, but they did not have that information.

As of Wednesday, some 70,000 doses of the two-dose Sinovac vaccine have been sent to the province, and 33,621 people there have received the jab, officials said.

The meeting in Bangkok, which goes through Friday, aims to review progress and identify challenges in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-legally binding intergovernmental agreement struck in 2018 under the auspices of the United Nations, organizers said.

The compact is the first-ever U.N. global agreement on a common approach to international migration. It aims to ensure that migrants have sustainable livelihoods, are provided basic services and are not discriminated against.

In 2019 alone, there were almost 65 million international migrants in the region, according to ESCAP. Thailand is a regional magnet for migrants who come from neighboring countries including Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Thailand’s next-door neighbor to the south, Malaysia, attracts large numbers of migrants from Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Burmese migrants enter Thailand

Thai authorities, meanwhile on Wednesday, defended their decision to block eight people from Myanmar from entering Thailand this week, saying they were being illegally smuggled across the border and that three of them showed signs of fever – a symptom of the coronavirus disease.

“With regard to the incident, officials found them illegally entering the country without medical screening, therefore, the officials enacted disease prevention measures and deported them to where they were from,” Col. Sirichan Ngathong, the Thai army’s deputy spokeswoman, told BenarNews via text message.

“We do the same at all border fronts to prevent COVID's spread.”

According to a statement from Human Rights Watch on Wednesday, Thai authorities intercepted eight Burmese as they were crossing the border from Myanmar’s Tachileik district into Thailand’s Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai province.

HRW did not say the eight Burmese nationals were asylum seekers, but noted that Thai authorities did not verify whether anyone in the group was fleeing the ongoing violence in Myanmar after last month’s military coup.

“Thai authorities have closed land borders with Myanmar and other neighboring countries,” HRW said, citing the country’s pandemic response.

“However, this policy violates international refugee law’s non-refoulement principle, which provides that no one should be returned to a country where they are likely to face persecution, torture, or other serious harm, even during a pandemic.”

HRW said that Thai media reported that the government had set up facilities along the border to accommodate asylum seekers from Myanmar, but that these facilities were empty.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign affairs responded to that claim, saying there had been no sign of asylum seekers from Myanmar entering the country.

“To date, there is no indication of any large groups seeking asylum across the border in relation to recent developments in Myanmar,” Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for the ministry, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Rest assured that preparations are being made in terms of different scenarios that would warrant a closer look at the reasons for fleeing over the Myanmar border, as we have always done in the past, according to our humanitarian tradition,” Tanee said.

“Our security agencies are monitoring the situation closely and preparing accordingly.”

For more than 30 years, Thailand has maintained nine temporary shelters for Burmese that currently host 90,000 displaced from the country, he said, adding this “is a solid testament to that and our resolve to offer solace to displaced persons in need.”


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