The Debate | Society | Southeast Asia

Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Southeast Asia’s Migrant Workers Fall Through the Cracks

In Thailand and Singapore, a public health crisis is challenging the typical delineations of citizenship.

By Jasmine Chia and Yong Han Poh for
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Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Southeast Asia’s Migrant Workers Fall Through the Cracks

Migrant construction workers sit in a truck after concluding day’s work in Bangkok, Thailand, March 26, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Amid the coronavirus crisis, countries have moved to shut borders, impose travel lockdowns, recall diasporic citizens, and ban foreigners from accessing local public health infrastructure.

Some have prophesied the end of globalization. COVID-19 has led to a resurgence of anti-globalist sentiments, it seems; a revival of autarky. In times of crisis, the nation-state appears at the forefront, with “citizenship” as its dividing line. Yet against this backdrop, migrant workers represent the paradoxes and limits of the sovereign, territorial state as we understand it today.

The word “pandemic” itself gestures at the global scale at which this public health crisis operates. However, responses to the pandemic have been primarily operationalized through the state system, with each individual country adopting its own set of public health policies.

In Singapore, these policies have been oriented around the citizen. While citizens have been entitled to free masks and hand sanitizer courtesy of the state, migrant laborers have had to rely on independent civic groups for these provisions. The Singaporean Ministry of Health advised doctors to stop or defer accepting new foreign nonresidents for fear that short-term visitors were flying in to Singapore just to get tested for COVID-19, at a time when other countries were experiencing a shortage of test kits.

The sites where migrant workers live and labor in — tightly-packed dormitories and construction work sites — also make measures like social distancing all but impossible, and put this population at a much higher risk for local transmission. The unique nature of a pandemic is such that public health risks do not map neatly along lines of citizenship. As Jeremy Lim, a doctor with migrant worker NGO HealthServe. puts it, “Frankly, if they [migrant workers] are at higher risk, then all of us become at higher risk also, because in managing outbreaks and epidemics, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. And if we don’t proactively look after the weakest link, then collectively, we will all pay the price.

Yet the restrictive measures were largely celebrated by the public, and understandably so. The commonsense assumption is that, assuming limited and scarce resources, all states need a way to prioritize the allocation of resources, and citizenship seems the most immediate and effective filtering mechanism. Yet, in a world where viruses spread based on physical proximity, without regard for socially constructed concepts of the “citizen” or the “nation-state,” tying the provision of free masks and sanitizer to citizenship seems to make little sense.

In Thailand, it is not the migrant worker’s proximity in the city, but rather their movement away from it that has created risks both for Thailand and its neighboring countries. The recently announced Bangkok shut-down and ban on cross-border travel on March 23 led to an exodus of people at border checkpoints like Mae Sot (near Myanmar), the Nakhon Phanom bus terminal (leading to Laos), and Sa Kaeo’s Aranyaprathet checkpoint near Cambodia. Scenes of tightly packed crowds by the border sparked public outcry — social distancing is not a luxury afforded to migrants, it seems.

The Thai government has come under fire for the shut-down, especially as it failed to provide a support system for low-income workers across the citizen/non-citizen divide. But the spillover into countries with limited public health infrastructure has been particularly alarming for those watching from the other side. After some 9,000 Burmese migrant workers crossed the Thai-Myanmar friendship bridge, a doctor in Myanmar’s Pathein General Hospital highlighted the hospital’s limited capacity, with just seven beds and one ventilator. “So if we have more than seven patients?” he asked. “Where will we put them?”

The mobility of migrants themselves further complicates nation-state-based approaches to tackling this global public health crisis. For migrant workers are not simply rooted – even if only temporarily – in one country: many migrant workers cross borders daily, commuting from their home countries to neighboring ones. Soon after Thailand declared its ban on cross-border land travel, the government was forced to reopen its border crossings from fear of migrant worker riots. “We must go home, or we will starve to death in Bangkok,” said a woman at Mae Sai.

Malaysia’s border shutdown also led to an exodus of Malaysians crossing the border into Singapore for fear of not being able to work. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, some Malaysian migrant workers were found sleeping rough in the streets of Singapore, while many others scrambled to find temporary lodging with friends or on the private market.

Jonathan Head, reporting for the BBC, wrote in a private Facebook post: “The drawbridges [are] going up around the world as panicking governments try to deal with the invisible coronavirus killer in our midst, and global wanderers [are] left stranded where they happen to be.”

There are travel patterns that have become – or have always been — an inescapable part of globalization. As governments rush to shut themselves off from the world, they may create unnatural stoppers that exacerbate the weakness of their own public health infrastructure and that of neighboring countries. Not providing migrant workers in Singapore with masks and sanitation equipment weakens Singapore’s health system. Not providing migrant workers in Thailand with social support during the shutdown weakens Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia’s health systems — and the spillover effects continue. For the “weakest link” is not merely the most vulnerable population within a country — it is the most vulnerable population in the world. As long as responses to the pandemic are localized and tied to individual nation-states, global response will be uneven, flawed, and limited at best. Viruses spread without regard for citizenship or sovereignty.

Today, we sit at an uncomfortable halfway point, where globalization has created the physical infrastructure for global mobility that facilitated the rapid spread of the virus, but globalization has not created the solutions to it. Of course, some might argue that the presence of global institutions like the World Health Organization suggests that the concept of nation-states is not always incompatible with globalism, that international cooperation across nation-state boundaries endures even in times of crisis. Yet, the Westphalian state system is such that these international organizations have little power to compel governments to act. Even as we move toward multilateralism, these multilateral instruments remain operationalized through the nation-state.

As “public health” becomes more globally interconnected, it becomes critical to think of the “public” not in terms of borders, but as an interconnected chain in which the “weakest” link — citizen or non-citizen — can endanger us all. These public health failures should also remind us that the concept of the nation-state is not without its internal tensions and contradictions – the impracticality of the citizen/non-citizen distinction, the difficulty of regulating border flows where these borders have always been blurred and porous. By refocusing our gaze on the weakest links, these tensions come to the fore — and pose challenges that go far beyond the current crisis at hand.

Jasmine Chia is a journalist at the Thai Enquirer with an MPhil in IR from Oxford University and a BA in Religion from Harvard.

Yong Han Poh is a Singaporean Senior at Harvard University studying Anthropology.