Visa Restrictions and Their Impact on Myanmar Youths in Thailand

by mohingamatters

On May 9, rumors surfaced on social media that Thailand had placed visa restrictions on Myanmar nationals applying to Thai language schools. This speculation suggested that Thailand was taking action to reduce the influx of Myanmar immigrants fleeing the hardships since the coup. Although unverified, the fear of losing an official route to stay in Thailand spread rapidly among Myanmar youths.

Language Visa and Its Strengths

Thailand offers various visa options for those wishing to enter its territory. The education visa (ED) allows individuals to study in universities or schools or participate in internships, seminars, etc. There are two types of education visas: formal and informal. The formal education visa is for university and school programs while the informal one is for shorter courses related to cultural exchange, such as language schools, Mway Thai boxing, culinary arts, etc.

The informal education visa has become popular among foreigners seeking long-term residency in Thailand, especially those who do not qualify for other visa types. Nearly 800 language schools in Thailand offer these services. However, this visa category has recently been misused for residency rather than educational purposes. This visa has recently become particularly popular among Myanmar youths seeking temporary status outside Myanmar although the trend began over a decade ago.

Recent Influx of Myanmar Youths into Thailand

Since the coup, hundreds of youths have left Myanmar, but the recent exodus due to the conscription law is the largest. Many choose Thailand for its proximity, similar food, cultural familiarity, and potential job opportunities. Language schools have become a popular visa solution, leading to high demand at established schools. For example, Mahachula in Pattaya, popular among Myanmar people, reportedly registered thousands of applicants, much higher than usual. There were rumors that the school had to refund many students due to the inability to issue visa recommendation letters for everyone.

Some business firms have seized this as an opportunity, registering as language or vocational schools at the last minute and offering visa services. A source told Mohinga Matters that he enrolled in a newly registered culinary school in Bangkok, paying about $3,000 for visa assistance. He received a month-long tourist visa, but when the school was supposed to help him obtain an extended visa, they stopped responding and kept his passport, leaving him stranded in Bangkok without proper documents. Despite this misjudgment, he feels it is better than serving in Min Aung Hlaing’s army, having arrived in late March 2024 after his cousin and close friend were conscripted.

Less fortunate youths, like one from the Bang Kapi neighborhood in Bangkok, have faced worse situations. After being denied enrollment despite paying the fee, he returned to Yangon, Myanmar, unable to find a job in Thailand due to the language barrier. As the sole breadwinner for his family, he could not survive without a job. In Yangon, he can at least earn some income despite the constant fear of being drafted.

There are about 150 youths in the same street, living in hostels and rented flats, waiting for their visas or passports to return.

Coordination Between Governments?

When rumors arose that Thailand might stop issuing education visas to Myanmar youths, speculation about coordination between Min Aung Hlaing’s army and the Thai government spread. Given the mass exodus, it was conceivable that the two governments might collaborate to restrict Myanmar youths from leaving the country easily.

However, Thailand has its pros and cons regarding accepting mass youths. They are useful for the workforce, providing cheap labor and tax revenue. Thai citizens benefit from renting accommodation and selling food. Statistics show that since 2022, Myanmar nationals have become the third-largest property buyers in Thailand, surpassing Chinese and Russians.

Conversely, the arrival of mass Myanmar youths has led to complaints from Thai netizens about a lack of discipline among immigrants, prompting authorities to address potential crime rates and homelessness. Some property owners refuse to rent to Myanmar nationals. Thus, it’s logical that the Thai government might act independently to restrict visas for Myanmar citizens.

Impact on Long-term Visa Holders

When asked if such policy changes and mild discrimination impact long-term visa holders, Win, who has studied and lived in Thailand for a decade, did not think so. He believes Thailand still benefits from Myanmar people’s investments and labor. Many housing projects struggling due to COVID-19 have regained traction due to the incoming Myanmar people. Myanmar teachers have also filled gaps in Thailand’s education sector despite a pay gap. Although visa and housing issues are challenges, he does not see it as an emergency. He urged newcomers to familiarize themselves with Thai immigration policy, social norms, and culture.

Another long-term resident, Su, mentioned that the current issues have existed for years, such as obtaining visas for less-established schools and finding accommodation without proper documents. She believes these problems have only grown due to increased exposure.

What’s next?

The challenges for Myanmar youths are real. Many are stranded in Bangkok without proper visas or travel documents, having been ripped off by greedy agents. They need to send money back to their families but can’t without the necessary documentation. We are only talking about those who have made it to Bangkok and can stay a few weeks without income. Thousands more have fled through illegal routes and entered the manual labor force despite having skilled work experience.

Win sees hope in the newly established Thai government, which may care about its international human rights image. Progressive opposition leader Pita Limjaroenrat has stressed the Myanmar situation in many conversations, suggesting that despite the Thai military’s ties with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime, Thailand might not oppress Myanmar youths as harshly.

In recent news, Thailand announced visa relaxations for certain nationals for digital nomads, education, and work. Students in Thailand will now have an extra year to find a job post-graduation. Although the new regulation does not specify benefits for Myanmar, there is hope that it will not worsen their situation.

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