Thousands of Lao migrant workers who recently returned from Thailand after losing their jobs to COVID-19 have been facing fresh hardships in crowded, undersupplied quarantine camps,, Lao officials and migrants told RFA.
During the coronavirus pandemic hundreds of thousands of the 2.8 million foreign workers in Thailand returned to their home countries after losing their jobs when their employers closed businesses, according to NGOs. But about 1 million were stranded in Thailand and only slowly made it out in the face of travel restrictions.
In late June, RFA reported that as many as 3,000 Lao workers returned home over the previous two months, crossing the border from Thailand after becoming suddenly unemployed as businesses shut down in response to the pandemic. Some took months to get home.
Returning migrants, many penniless, have to pay for their own food and are sent to crowded camps with no cooking facilities, toilets, or enough sleeping areas.
In one camp, a converted stadium, the migrants have to share tents and mosquito nets. Because they are outdoors, sleeping is difficult if the weather is bad.
“It is so crowded here at the stadium ground. They have separated us, making us sleep in tents with mosquito nets, so when it is windy or raining it is hard to sleep, especially when the ground is all wet,” a Lao worker from Kham Mouane province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“We have to buy water for drinking and rice to eat and cook them ourselves. The rice they are distributing to us is hard, so we cannot eat it,” the worker added.
An official from the province’s department of labor and social services told RFA that the government has been putting returning workers from Thailand and foreign citizens visiting Laos in quarantine for a period of 14 days.
“Before, they were putting them all in one place but now there are several [quarantine locations,] the official said.
“If they have [nearby] relatives, they can receive food, but if they don’t, the government will help them,” said the official.
The official added that the government gives food, a pillow, a sleeping pad and mosquito nets to those who need them.
In another crowded camp at a military training facility at kilometer 27 outside the capital Vientiane, a migrant from Vientiane province told RFA that he shared a room with four people, but they had to supply their own masks and share everything. Some of the toilets at the facility broke down, forcing an increasing number of migrants to share a decreasing number of working bathrooms.
An official at the camp told RFA, “The army truck picks them up at the border and drops them [here] with food and other accommodations for free, as they are provided by the government. But they have to pay for masks and clean the compound and live together.”
The official said that the military facility can accept hundreds of returning workers. So far more than 200 had completed quarantine and returned to their homes, while there are 200 more currently there, he said. In the event that the migrant is from another province, after four days they are allowed to return home to finish their 14-day quarantine in their home provinces.
Meanwhile, an official in Savannakhet province told RFA that the province was operating two camps, and most of the migrants returning from Thailand are staying at a camp at kilometer 4 near Phom Vihan city in an old sports arena. Currently there are almost 300 migrants under 14-day quarantine there, with food provided by the government.
“Officials take them there after they arrive, and right now there are about 290 people there, and they don’t have to pay for anything,” the Savannakhet official said.
The official said that the exact number of Lao workers returning from Thailand cannot be known because they come and go home after finishing their 14-day quarantine.
“So suppose this week there 300 people came in and then next week 100. After two weeks, they would be released to go home and a new group would come in, like a cycle,” the official said.
“The village committee will follow up with them once they are home, and the province committee will take them to their province if they are from outside [Savannakhet],” he added.
Thousands of people are still coming across the Laos-Thailand border daily. On Monday 2,267 entered the country through land border gates, 159 of whom were migrants coming come from Thailand, while the rest were foreign visitors and Lao travelers returning home.
The 159 workers were sent to the kilometer 27 camp to wait out their 14 days.
Across Laos there are 70 active quarantine facilities or camps, where 3,915 Lao workers and foreign citizens are under quarantine.
Some 180,000 Lao workers were known to be formally registered to work in Thailand, employed in domestic work, construction, manufacturing, agriculture. They sent $149 million in remittances back to Laos in 2018, according to the World Bank.
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Eugene Whong.