There are an estimated 2 million people from Myanmar (formerly Burma) now living and working in Thailand, having crossed the border to escape the civil unrest, repression and economic woes of their country, which has been ruled by a military junta since the 1960s. Each year, thousands more risk their lives to enter Thailand.
In the Ranong province of Thailand, aid workers estimate that migrants from Myanmar have reached around 200,000, which is twice the size of the local population. Many are from ethnic minorities, particularly the Christian Karen people, who have fled from the south of Myanmar following repression by the junta. In Ranong, they find low paid work in the fishing, seafood and agricultural industries.
But even though these refugees have found safety in Thailand, for many their struggle to survive is far from over. The prevalence of HIV/AIDs among the migrants is high, though no official statistics are available. Fearful of seeking help, migrants often appear at local hospitals only when they become so ill they are unable to work and are in the last stages of the disease.
The local health care in Ranong has been funding treatment for 3,000 migrants but is now relying on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Marist Mission Ranong to help pay for new HIV patients. At 80 dollars per month, the cost of Anti-Retroviral medication is too high for most to afford from their own income, assuming they are well enough to work.
In Myanmar itself, an estimated 240,000 people are infected with the HIV virus and of the 75,000 who are in urgent need of anti-retroviral treatment, only one fifth actually receive it. For the rest, those who are too poor to pay for their own medicine, must go without. Funding for the HIV/AIDs programme is inadequate and many aids agencies operate on a limited basis in Myanmar.
The influx of HIV infected people from Myanmar comes as an unwelcome burden for Thailand, which has recorded over 1.1 million cases of HIV since the start of the epidemic in 1984. Over 600,000 people are currently estimated to be living with HIV in Thailand.
Thanks to successful public campaigns among the sex industry and cheap, generic ARV treatments, Thailand has managed to limit the number of deaths. But despite past successes, there is cause for concern that a fresh wave of infections is hitting the country. Apart from the high number of cases among migrants, the virus is now spreading within new population groups such as married women. A recent UN report highlighted that “the main mode of transmission is among married couples”, where women are being infected by HIV positive partners.
If Thailand is to combat this new wave of HIV/AIDs, the country will have to draw its citizens’ attention to the continuing danger posed by this disease.