In Myanmar, quarantine facilities become first responders for returning migrant women

As the number of returning migrants increased in Myanmar due to COVID-19, so did the need to ensure that the virus could be contained. To provide access to safe quarantine for all returning migrants, the government requested the support of local actors. Under the EU-funded Safe and Fair programme, Myanmar’s Women’s Organizations Network (WON) and Migrant Monitoring Group (MMG) partnered to set up quarantine facilities to house returning women migrant workers.

Date: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Author: Lesly Lotha

Photo of volunteers, border polices and a couple of migrants at border gates offering awareness information on COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence Photo: Migrant Monitoring Group (MMG)
Volunteers at border gates offering awareness information on COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence. Photo: Migrant Monitoring Group (MMG)

At first, it was difficult for the women migrant returnees to settle into the quarantine centres and hold to physical distancing rules. Fear of stigmatisation of those who have stayed in quarantine facilities has also been a huge concern, so much so that some women hid or bribed taxi drivers to drive them directly to their home villages.

“Everyone is stressed out in this situation and the women and girls are worried and they cry, saying I don’t want to stay here, this is like a jail,” says Than Nwe Tun, volunteer from MMG, in charge of a facility quarantine centre in Myawaddy. She says women also worry about getting infected, and if they do, they question who will care for them.

As front-line workers, the volunteers themselves are at risk, but Pyae Phyo, an MMG volunteer situated at the Border Control Facility (BCF) zone, is determined to help. “Everyone is scared in this situation, but if we’re not doing it, who will? I am more scared that I will have the virus and be responsible for spreading it to the returning migrants,” he says.

Phyu Thaw, WON’s project manager for the Safe and Fair programme, believes that sharing of information on COVID-19 and the prevention methods has helped. She credits the partner MMG for turning the situation around in the quarantine centres: “Slowly, slowly, our partners did a lot of work and awareness action, providing [the women] IEC materials and explaining the COVID situation, and then things changed.” Awareness campaigns were also done at the village and community level, disseminating information, education and communication (IEC) materials and negating rumours about the returning migrants and COVID-19.

Phyu Thaw also adds that the 21 days the women spend in the quarantine centres is also an opportunity. “You can imagine, 21 days is a very long time and they get very bored. But our MMG volunteers spread awareness on not only COVID, but also on violence against women and girls (VAWG) and gender-based violence (GBV).”

Information about safe migration, and safety and health information is also shared. “These are the most needed topics for any migrant worker,” says Pyae Phyo.

The quarantine facilities vary in size and capacity. While some can hold up to 800 people, others cater to smaller groups of up to 70 people. Centres come equipped with books, Wi-Fi and spaces to exercise. The volunteers reside full-time in these centres and there is a volunteer doctor visiting daily. In Nwe Tun’s opinion, the doctor has been very effective in helping communicate preventive measures as well as dismantling irrational fears.

As highlighted by a representative of the European Union in Myanmar, Safe and Fair has become all the more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected migration patterns and exacerbated violence against women. While Safe and Fair was set up under the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to tackle gender-based violence specifically, project partners and volunteers have been able to adapt to this situation by addressing additional unexpected challenges.

For instance, a surprise was the number of pregnant migrant women returning from Thailand and the doctor’s role has been particularly important in caring for these women. To cater to their antenatal care, the volunteers at the quarantine centres arranged clinic visits every few weeks for the women. There are currently more than 15 pregnant women in the quarantine centres. But while awaiting the birth of a child is a moment of joy for many, it is also filled with pain and sorrow for some. Nwe Tun describes a tragic moment where a returning migrant woman went into labour on the day she arrived into the centre but unfortunately, her child did not survive. Presently, she is being attended to in a clinic.

Women have also shared horrific experiences of sexual abuse during their migration experience, and the pregnancies are a constant reminder for some women. Such occurrences are of course not restricted to the COVID-19 period, but rather migrant women deal with complicated and nuanced social issues continuously. “They hold on to a lot of secrets and also feel insecure,” adds Nwe Tun.

Pyae Phyo has also seen his fair share of tragedy in the BCF zone. A recent such case was a suicide that occurred in front of him. A young returning male migrant in his late 20s was extremely stressed about his financial situation and he had informed his family that he would take his own life before reaching the quarantine centre. The checks at the border gates have subsequently increased and they are now carefully vetting for dangerous and harmful tools.

MOVING FORWARD

The president of MMG, Aung Myat, says that services must start focusing on people’s psychological wellbeing rather than the necessities that have been provided by individual donors: “Everybody has their own kind of difficulties, anxiety, trouble and stress. So if we can have counsellors or experts in the quarantine centres, and the BCF zone and the migrants can open up and share their feelings with the experts, it will be better and such cases will not happen again. This support is needed even after this pandemic is over.”

Pyae Phyo agrees with the president on the need for psychosocial support but also emphasises the lack of financial assistance, since many migrants do not have money to even get back to their homes. The Department of Social Welfare offers 30,000 MMK (around USD $22) in support for families with infants but besides this, there are currently no government aid plans for returning migrants.

In a bid to make up for the shortage of women in the quarantine centre workforce and also provide employment, Nwe Tun said quarantine centres in Myawaddy have started accepting migrant women as volunteers. “Once their 21-day quarantine period is over and they are willing to work as a volunteer, they can join. In my centre, we now have three ex-migrant workers as volunteers.” This is, however, restricted to those for whom Myawaddy happens to be home and the final travel destination.

WON’s Phyu Thaw is pleased at how the local government has supported the Safe and Fair programme. Overtime, the local government has become familiar with the programme, and this relationship has been helpful for responding quickly to the imminent needs in the COVID-19 context. Phyu Thaw says the role played by MMG in the undertaking of the community-based quarantine centres was important, but emphasised that SAF’s reputation was also an added benefit: “This is a very short-term, emergency programme but [SAF] is recognised for working with migrants and this really helped.”

The current plan for government quarantine facilities is to continue operating until December but the future of the facility quarantine centres remains uncertain. With migrants still returning every day, the quarantine centres have become a safe space and a home for the especially vulnerable during these uncertain times.

Safe and Fair: realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunity in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region is part of the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. The programme is implemented by UN Women and ILO, in collaboration with UNODC.