More than 1,000 Myanmar migrant workers are stuck in Chinese detention centers with no way to contact their families or return to their homes, current and former migrants told RFA.
The migrant group consists of undocumented illegal border crossers and people who overstayed six-day tourist visas to work. Some had lost their jobs during recent outbreaks of coronavirus and were trying to return to Myanmar when authorities arrested them.
More than 100 are at a detention center in the southeastern province of Guangdong, while 1,000 more are in Baoshan, Yunan province, close to the Myanmar border.
Aye Moe, 26, had been in detention for seven months at a drug rehabilitation center in Baoshan prior to her release and deportation on May 20 along with 152 other detainees.
She told RFA’s Burmese Service there were about 1,000 Myanmar nationals at the center including 14 members of the Rakhine minority, who were still being held on charges of forging Chinese ID cards. The additional crime complicated their deportation.
“You can't have a job if you don’t have a registration card. So the brokers gave them fake registration cards and the police found out. Those 14 Rakhines were not even allowed to fill out their immigration forms,” she said.
“I tried to be brave one day and went to ask the police captain to help them. He said he couldn’t do anything and that he didn’t get the case files when they were handed over to him. He said he could only do what he was asked," she said.
Hnin Hnin of Yangon, who had been working at a battery factory in Huazhou, Guangdong, told RFA that she and her husband were among 28 people arrested at the factory during a police raid last February.
“Since I was pregnant they sent me back to the factory,” she said.
“They said I would be deported. I already have a confirmation letter from Myanmar authorities from four months ago, but I have not been sent back yet. I have no job and want to go home to give birth in Myanmar,” Hnin Hnin added.
The 36-year-old expectant mother said that eight people in the group, including her husband, were deported to Myanmar on May 19 over China’s border with Kachin state with the help of the Myanmar Embassy.
The crackdown on factories using migrant labor began in early 2021. Since then, hundreds of Myanmar migrants have been hiding in the jungles outside of the cities where they once worked.
Others have tried to return to Myanmar, paying 10,000 yuan (about U.S. $1,500) to brokers who lead them on a three-day journey from Guangdong to the Myanmar border, but they were caught en route.
Ye Lwin Tun, a 26-year-old resident of Kyaukphyu village in Namsang Township, northern Shan State, told RFA that three of his friends had not been freed yet.
"Over 170 people have now been released. We heard they would release more than 100 people from the prisons. A few of them are Vietnamese, but the rest are Myanmar citizens,” he said.
“There are about four or five prisons in Guangdong. They are huge ones. We were not put together in one prison but separated in different ones. Three of our villagers have not been released yet. Chinese police said all illegal immigrants who do not have COVID-19 vaccinations would be arrested. Myanmar citizens are now refused by Chinese companies because the owners do not dare hire them. If they are caught, they have to pay fines and may go to prison,” he said.
Ye Lwin Tun said he was arrested in October last year along with about 300 Myanmar nationals while working at a factory in Huazhou that makes shampoo caps.
Kyaw Kyaw, a labor activist in Ruili, China, said it normally takes about 20 days or so for Myanmar workers to be returned to the border if they give themselves up to the Chinese police, but now have to stay in detention camps for at least three to six months.
"It takes a long time for the mainland to deport them,” he said. “If they do not have passports, they will be released within a maximum of 20 days on grounds of COVID rules. But for those from Guangdong, they could not get past Baoshan. Whether they take a shortcut or not, it is impossible to pass that line. If arrested, they could be held for at least 3 to 6 months.”
Kyaw Kyaw said there are prisoners who have been detained for years who have had no contact with their families or the embassy.
RFA contacted both Myanmar Embassy in Beijing and Chinese Embassy in Myanmar by email on May 25 for comments but have not received a reply.
In March, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon told RFA in an e-mail that China takes the rights of foreign workers seriously and that foreigners should in turn respect Chinese laws.
Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.