[Editor's Note: Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau is a multimedia storyteller using the sacred art of journalism to heal and repair one's dignity. Simba’s stories have been featured on the Guardian, IPS Gender Newswire, IPS Inter Press Service, Humanist Newswire, and Le Monde. Simba has worked as a photographer, radio correspondent, and writer in the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, and North America. This post is an excerpt of the newest edition of Migrant Stories, which is a magazine that provides a platform for migrants, refugees, and indigenous communities to raise their voices, awakening the world to the journey they face and fostering a culture of respect.]
Truth: The age of mobility is upon us, as countries sending and receiving migrant workers is at an all time high. To add to the mix, there are currently more than 15.4 million refugees in the world today.
Truth: In 2010, the United Nations (UN) estimated that there were over 214 million international migrants, meaning that nearly 3.1% or one out of 33 persons is a migrant. This population would constitute the 5th populous country in the world, with women accounting for nearly 50 percent.
Truth: Nearly 72% of the world’s 33 million refugees are women and children.
Truth: Every step of the way, these refugees and economic migrants must survive human traffickers, forced labour, a treacherous sea voyage in overcrowded dinghy boats and xenophobia.
Truth: With the global economy in tatters, climate changing the game and wars raging across the world, migration is becoming a human reality.
Truth: Even you could find yourself a migrant. Leaving your place of comfort in search of greener pastures.
Currently, there are an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers in Thailand. According to human rights groups, the vast majority originate from Myanmar due to confiscation of land, human rights abuses, conflict, lack of jobs or other economic opportunities back home. Even though workers are officially covered by Thai laws and regulations, their rights are regularly violated.
At the age of 23, Gao who is pictured here travelled to Thailand due to intense fighting between the Shan army and the Burmese army. After serving in the Shan army as a soldier, he returned home to rumours that recruitment for young boys had resumed and his family agreed that it would be better if he went to Thailand where he could make a better living and provide for his family. This is his journey.
Simba: What was your life like in Burma?
Gao: I grew up in Shan State in Burma. There was always conflict so it was very difficult for all of us. In Burma, there’s a lot of discrimination against the various ethnic groups so people like us were denied an education or proper working and living conditions. For Shan people, I’d like that our culture and history is recognised and that our people gain freedom and autonomy.
S: What type of work did you do when you first arrived in Thailand?
G: When I first arrived to Thailand, I was working as a labourer lifting rocks out of the river onto the land and as a construction worker. This was about 14 years ago, we would work in the river all day without equipment like rubber gloves. We would collect the rocks and put them into a tank and then we’d get a half baht for each tank.
I tried to return to Shan State in Burma but things were still difficult so I crossed the border once more and started working in the hills of Thailand picking cabbage. Working in this area was very dangerous because there was a lot of drugs and everyone was addicted. I feared that if I remained there then I too would be become addicted so I tried to save enough money to relocate to Bangkok. Luckily, I met someone who also wanted to reach Bangkok so we put our monies together and travelled together.
S: Tell me about your life once you arrived in Bangkok.
G: After arriving in Bangkok, I started working in a garment factory. We didn’t have proper food. Every day I eating rice and sharing a packet of Ramen noodles. I started to get very sick. My whole body started to swell but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. In our tradition, if you get swelling then you’re told to take this medicine. However, when I took the medicine it made me even more sick.
The employer started to worry that I may die and suggested that I quit and go home. I didn’t want to return to Shan State because of my illness and I didn’t want to be a burden on my family. All the workers at the garment factory put their money together and helped me get a bus ticket to Chiang Mai.
Once I arrived in Chiang Mai, I remembered that I had heard on the radio about a Shan temple. I thought that if I was going to die then I would rather die in a Shan temple. The red bus driver who agreed to take me to the temple cheated me because it should have only cost around 8 baht but he charged me 400 baht.
When I arrived to the temple, a Shan guy – who had been around for a long time and was very knowledgeable – offered to help me. He put me in a wheelchair and took me to the hospital and left me at the counter. Despite running several tests, they couldn’t find out what was wrong with me so they sent me to the regional hospital in Chiang Mai. I was really lucky because the doctor assigned to me was Shan so I could communicate better with him. After inquiring about my history and what I was eating, he diagnosed me as being malnourished and that the medicine I had taken was poisonous.
The doctor kindly gave me treatment without asking for money and the social worker at the hospital gave me 50 baht. I went back to the Shan temple where I stayed for a month.
S: How did you find out about the Migrant Assistance Program?
G: The monk at the temple told me about a group of Shan who helped each other and it was the telephone number of Migrant Assistance Program (MAP). I called and someone from MAP came to take me and another migrant who had malaria to their emergency house.