Thousands of undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar are stuck in and around the Chinese city of Wuhan, under lockdown for weeks because of the highly contagious coronavirus, with travel in and out of the area temporarily halted, according to a diplomat and Myanmar labor rights groups.
Myanmar’s embassy in Beijing and consulates in other Chinese cities have circulated their phone numbers in hopes that the workers will contact them so they can provide assistance.
Diplomats directly transport the workers back home without first obtaining permission from Chinese police, and to do that the workers would have to go to local authorities themselves.
But because the workers — the exact number of whom is unknown — are in China illegally, they are reluctant to deal with police for fear of arrest, said Soe Pyae Win, deputy secretary of the Myanmar Embassy in Beijing.
He said that Chinese police are not looking to arrest the undocumented workers, but rather obtain information they need to assist them.
“We released a statement that Myanmar nationals need to present proof of citizenship,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It is not true that they will be arrested and given prison sentences.”
“Some of them were already being detained before the outbreak of the disease,” he added.
Soe Pyae Win insisted that Chinese authorities would help Myanmar nationals return home after the embassy submitted the required documents to police.
Nevertheless, some workers said they remain distrustful.
Maung Myint, a migrant laborer from Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe who works in southeast China’s Guangdong province, said he contacted the embassy for help, but had second thoughts about providing information.
“We called the embassy for help. They asked for our WeChat account information. I don’t know how to get this,” he told RFA, referring to the Chinese social media and messaging app.
Maung Myint also said that workers who want to return must be screened for the virus, but still cannot return to Myanmar even if they are not infected with it.
“I was afraid that we might be detained for a long time,” he said. “I heard they [Chinese police] are giving prison sentences of one or two months. That’s why I am [now] too afraid to contact the embassy.”
Moemakha, a social worker and chairwoman of the Moemakha Foundation, a Myanmar group that provides assistance to migrant workers, said about 100 undocumented laborers in China have contacted her organization for help with returning home.
“Now it’s very difficult to help them because of the blockage by Chinese authorities,” she said.
“We really want to help them,” she said. “We can arrange for their return, but the problem is the blockage.”
Reported By Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.