Authorities in China have detained more than 400 Myanmar migrant workers for more than a year for entering the country illegally and working without official documents, released migrants told RFA.
About 300 of the migrants were held at a prison in the southern coastal city of Dongguan, while the rest are detained inside a seafood factory in the city of Weihai, Shandong province, a peninsula that juts eastward into the Yellow Sea.
The 400 workers are among a pool of some 230,000 migrants who have sought work in China in the wake of armed conflict, environmental destruction and natural disasters in Myanmar, the Mekong region’s largest source of migrants, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. The undocumented status of the workers leaves them susceptible to exploitation at the hands of business owners and local officials.
Hailing from Kyauktaw township in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, Aye Lwin Than arrived in China in March 2018 to work in a wire factory in Dongguan. He was arrested in September 2020 and 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 Than, who was granted her release in September, told RFA’s Myanmar Service about his time at the prison in Dongguan.
“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,” said Aye Lwin Than. He called the situation “hopeless.”
Aye Lwin Than said 20 Myanmar citizens worked with him at the factory. Nine men and eight women were arrested, and three others escaped, he said.
He and five others were sent to the prison in Dongguan. He said that he did not know the fate of the other 12.
“The police asked me how we came into the country, who the agent and brokers were, how long we had been in the country, where we had worked, how much we earned, and things like that. They never told us what charges we were being held under,” he said.
“They then took us away in handcuffs, gave us medical checks and sent us straight to prison. On the way, in the prison bus, I asked where my friends were and they said we would be staying at the same place, but I never saw them again,” Aye Lwin Than said.
The five others who went to prison with Aye Lwin Than included one person from Yangon, one from Kachin state and three from Rakhine. They were all released and deported to Myanmar in September 2020.
Family members of some of the detainees in the Dongguan prison told RFA that they needed help securing their release.
Myanmar migrants work at factories, construction sites, farms, restaurants and as domestic helpers in China. But they are not legally allowed to be there, a situation that leaves them vulnerable to abuses, including forced labor, wage theft, human trafficking, extortion and debt bondage, aid groups say.
Chinese government officials sometimes work with business owners to exploit migrants, according to Aung Myat Min, who told RFA he escaped from the Nishi Haitai Marine Food Co. plant in Weihai, Shandong province, where he and at least 90 others he is aware of were forced to work without pay.
While preparing seafood for export to South Korea and Japan, Aung Myat Min and 45 other Myanmar nationals were arrested by Chinese police, who said they could avoid prison by working for the company’s owner without pay.
He and the five others reported their situation to Myanmar’s embassy and were released with the embassy’s help.
But 90 workers are still enslaved at the factory, he said.
“The company’s name is Yang Ming in Nishi Haitai Group, Wendeng district, Weihai, Shandong province. There were 46 of us, all Myanmars. We were held for two or three days in a big room in the company compound, which has iron gates and bars like a prison,” Aung Myat Min said.
“After three days, 28 other Myanmar nationals were brought in from another factory in Wendeng district. There were nine rooms in the dormitory. I and the other 45 people were kept in the nine rooms, with men and women separate. Each room held about nine people and they locked the door and we could not communicate with those in other rooms,” he said.
Aung Myat Min said there were 23 people who were detained at the factory before his group of 46 arrived. Another 28 people arrived later, bringing the total number of detained Myanmars working without pay there to 97.
Aung Myat Min said the factory’s Chinese owner and the police handcuffed and kept him in isolation for 11 days in another part of the factory when they found out he reported the situation to the Myanmar embassy. He gave the embassy a list of 90 of the detainees.
Aung Myat Min’s brother, who requested anonymity because he is still working in Wendeng district, told RFA that most factories in Weihai are working alongside the police and are likely holding about 300 Myanmar migrants who are being used 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 Myat Min’s brother.
“The embassy said they would be released in November. Even my brother was freed only about two months after we reported the situation to the embassy. I have no contact with the embassy now. Whenever we call them they just say everything will be all right. When we contact them, they only give us a reply after a week or more. I don't know if they're too busy to talk to us," he said.
In a previous report, Aung Myat Min said he suspected the companies bribed the police so that they could exploit the workers.
There is no official bilateral agreement between China and Myanmar on migrant workers, but hundreds of thousands of Myanmar nationals go to China every year to work. Residents on the Chinese side of the border said most Myanmar workers in China are often considered illegal workers and often get arrested because there is no agreement for migrant labor.
China’s embassy in Myanmar told RFA that Beijing recognizes the rights and interests of foreigners in China.
“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 said in an email.
In response to a question about Myanmar citizens detained in prisons, the embassy also said that China is a country ruled by law and foreigners should abide by those laws.
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