Location:  Thailand • Myanmar

“No paperwork, no rights.”

The civil war in Myanmar (formerly Burma) is thought to be one of the longest ongoing civil wars of our generation. With decades of ethnic cleansing, Myanmar is home to a number of ethnic minorities who are pressurised to conform to the language and traditions of the majority. In desperation for freedom from the conflict many people flee from Myanmar by foot across the Thai border. In pursuit of a better life, masses carry the hope of receiving education, the hope of earning a wage to sustain their family or the hope to simply survive.  Whilst there are those who are granted refugee status within Thailand, there are many who live without official documentation: the undocumented migrants.

Migrants without paperwork are particularly vulnerable to being exploited, classically in the form of receiving little pay for hard labour. Their workplaces can be unsafe and most employers view undocumented workers as expendable. Additionally, without an ability to speak the national language or without knowledge of local customs, work opportunities are even more limited. The jobs they are able to obtain are most often gruelling, including domestic servitude, busking or selling at night markets or working on a building site. Living in the touristy city of Chiang Mai we found ourselves surrounded by building sites on every street and began to notice clothes hanging on lines within them, or waterproof sheets draped like a tent – clues that workers lived within the site. Often migrants that work as builders live at each building site that they work on, moving as the project moves.

For a migrant with no paperwork, travelling within Thailand bears the threat of being stopped by the police and demanded to provide official documentation. The lack of these papers could lead to a steep fine or a corrupt proposition. As a consequence, an undocumented migrant will live in fear of being caught, particularly in times when they don’t have the money to pay a bribe-fee. Additionally, healthcare and education are inaccessible to those without official documentation. 

This is their life. For an undocumented migrant in Thailand, theirs is a life of fear, of threat and of limited opportunity. Yet, despite the difficulties, undocumented migrants abound in Thailand. These hardships are still said to be a better life than what was left across the border.