Updated: November 19, 2021 08:34 AM GMT
Myanmar migrant workers are held inside the seafood processing plant owned by the Nishi Haitai Group in Weihai in Wendeng district in China's Shandong province. (Photo: Citizen Journalist/RFA)
More than 400 migrant workers from Myanmar have been detained in China for over a year for alleged illegal entry and working without official documents, say recently released migrants.
About 300 migrants are detained at a prison in Dongguan, a southern coastal city, and the rest are held inside a seafood factory in Weihai city in Shandong province, reports Radio Free Asia (RFA).
The detained workers are among some 230,000 migrants from Myanmar who have sought work in China amid armed conflict, environmental destruction and natural disasters in Myanmar, according to the International Organization for Migration, which notes that undocumented workers remain vulnerable to exploitation at the hand of business owners and local officials.
Aye Lwin Than, from Kyauktaw township in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, said he moved to China in March 2018 to work in a wire factory in Dongguan. Arrested in September 2020, he was released one year later.
“It was a large dormitory and there were many dormitories, each about five floors. There were 19 or 20 rooms on each floor and all the rooms were full,” Aye Lwin told RFA Myanmar Service after his release, recalling his prison days.
“When we arrived after being arrested, there were 27 or 28 occupants in each room. They were all, like us, arrested while working. We had no idea at the time how many months or years we would be there or when we would be released,” he said, describing the situation as “hopeless.”
Of those arrested along with my brother, only four or five of them have been released. I don’t know where the others are being held now
Aye Lwin Than said he was among 21 Myanmar nationals working in the factory. Nine men and eight women were arrested. He and five others ended up in a prison in Dongguan, but the fate of the others remains unknown.
While in prison, police asked them how they entered the country, how long they stayed, where they had worked and how much they earned, but never told them what were the charges against them.
Aye Lwin Than said that among his five inmates one was from Yangon, one from Kachin state and three from Rakhine. All were released and deported to Myanmar like him in September 2020.
Family members of some of the detainees in the Dongguan prison told RFA that they needed help securing their release.
According to aid groups, most Myanmar migrants are employed in commercial factories, construction sites, farms, restaurants and as domestic workers in China. As they are considered unwelcome in the country, they remain prone to abuses including forced labor, wage theft, human trafficking, extortion and debt bondage.
Chinese government officials sometimes work with business owners to exploit migrants, it is claimed.
Aung Myat Min escaped from the Nishi Haitai Marine Food Co. plant in Weihai. He said he and at least 90 others worked in the factory. When Chinese police arrested Aung and 45 other Myanmar workers, they were told they could avoid prison by working for the company’s owner without pay, he told RFA.
He and five others reported their situation to Myanmar’s embassy and were released with the embassy’s help. However, the other workers are still enslaved at the factory.
Aung’s brother, whose name has been kept secret for security reasons, is still working in a factory in Wendeng district. He said most factories in Weihai effectively collaborate with police and are thought to be holding and exploiting about 300 Myanmar migrants as unpaid laborers.
"Of those arrested along with my brother, only four or five of them have been released. I don’t know where the others are being held now. Sometimes they are taken to work for other companies,” said Aung’s brother.
China’s embassy in Myanmar says Beijing recognizes the rights and interests of foreigners in the country
China and Myanmar have no official agreement on migrant workers, but observers say hundreds of thousands of workers go to China every year to find employment. In the absence of an official agreement, Myanmar migrants are considered illegal, often arrested and exploited.
China’s embassy in Myanmar says Beijing recognizes the rights and interests of foreigners in the country.
“If foreigners in China encounter difficulties or disputes, they can seek help from the nearest local public security agencies or their country's embassy or consulate in China,” the embassy told RFA in an email.
In regards to Myanmar citizens in prisons, the embassy said foreigners are supposed to abide by Chinese laws.
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