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Thailand and particularly Mae Sot have always been areas of migrants. Burmese people have been coming to Mae Sot for centuries, and then two and a half years ago the coup happened and since then, they have more than a 1.8 million displaced people.

In Conversation with Simon Becker

We spoke to master’s student Simon Becker who is supporting subproject number 2 of the International Research Cluster 2023. The subproject focuses on the socio-economic integration of migrants and refugees from Myanmar who are living in the border region. Simon’s research is concerned with the labour market integration of refugees and migrants in Thailand. 


Cologne International Forum: 
Welcome Simon! Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you find your way into the project and what does your role within the project entail?

Simon Becker:
Hello! My name is Simon and I am a master’s student in Geography at the University of Cologne. Initially, I wanted to do research for my master’s project in Malawi, as I used to live there. However, when I spoke to my professor he suggested this project to me instead, as he thought that I’d be a good fit for it. My role in the project was to collect data on labour market integration - so I was part of the research team, and I am working on my master's thesis based on the research we conducted when we were in Mae Sot.


Can you provide an overview of the subproject?

Within this subproject, we look at the livelihoods and the living conditions for displaced people coming from Myanmar, which are now living in Mae Sot, a border town. We also look at the human security issues of the displaced and what kind of challenges they are facing living in Mae Sot. We are especially interested in labour market integration - do these people find jobs? If they do, to what extent are they stable? What are the working conditions? What are the factors and challenges influencing labour market integration? We want to look at the role of governments and organizations and what impact they have on the displaced people from Myanmar. 


Who else is taking part in the subproject and where are you located?

We are a project from the University of Cologne and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. From Chulalongkorn, there are two lecturers with us: Naruemon Thabchumpon and Bhanubhatra Kaan Jittiang. Then we had another master’s student from Myanmar, Su Myat Thwe, who studies with the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn. She was the one conducting research with me in Mae Sot. In Cologne, we have Professor Javier Revilla Diez, who is a professor in economic geography. And well - me, the second master’s student.


What do you think is worthwhile about the project? What inspired it?

Well, Thailand and particularly Mae Sot have always been areas of migrants. Burmese people have been coming to Mae Sot for centuries, and then two and a half years ago the coup happened and since then, they have more than a 1.8 million displaced people; new displaced people at that. So, that is really something that inspired the research team – the integration of displaced people economically but also socially in this new country.


What are some of the key findings that have emerged from this project so far?

I think one big finding is that since the displaced people live in exile, they don’t have any access to education or the labour market. I also don’t call these people refugees because they are not, as they don’t have legal status. They cannot seek asylum since Thailand is not part of the 1951 UN convention or the 1967 protocol. They don’t have documentation and there is constant police questioning, which makes it hard to move around Mae Sot. Coming with this lack of documentation means that they cannot apply for jobs like they normally would, if they had the opportunity, so they must seek informal employment. That’s what really shocked me, many cannot even find day jobs or any other kind of employment. 


How do people earn money?

There are a couple of people who are able to obtain an employment or who try to be self-employed, doing any kind of business. You have to keep in mind: these are highly educated people, and they bring in a lot of skills but the Thai government does not see these skills as economic assets. They only see them as a human security issue. But with the scarce employment opportunities comes a lack of finance, so a lot of people struggle with paying the rent or even for food. Education or health care isn’t even a question. Many people are traumatized by the situation in Myanmar and Mae Sot. My colleague Su always insists: “They are facing vulnerabilities, but they are not vulnerable”. They are some of the strongest people - they are still living, still having fun and are part of a revolution. Another interesting finding, which Su made is that there is an intersectionality and a gender-blind policy: women face double the burden of being a displaced person and also being a woman, but Su could probably tell you more about that.


Can you give us some insight into how the communication and collaboration between the different subprojects work? Are you guys in exchange with each other?

Yes, we have monthly meetings in the research cluster, which can get as long as 3 hours where we update each other. But besides that, we mainly focus on our own subproject. When I was in Mae Sot, I met some members from subproject 3. 


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced within the project?

For me personally, it wasn’t easy. I read a lot of articles and papers, but I am still a privileged white man living in Germany. Firstly, preparing my questionnaire, which is fitting to the challenges and issues of the displaced people was really hard. I spoke to the others a lot like Su, Naruemon and Kaan but then when I started my fieldwork, I suddenly had these thoughts where I was just like: “Oh...this question was not how I thought it was going to go”. For some of these questions, I really needed the trust of the locals, for example when asking about financial situations, where they may be blamed by the Thai government.


How did you find people to take part in your questionnaire then? I am sure it must have been hard to find people who would risk opening up to strangers.

Yes, that’s right. I mean in the first week when I came to Mae Sot there were police raids, and arrests aimed at Burmese people, just so you can get a better understanding. So, we said: “No, it’s not the right time to conduct the research”, so we postponed it a bit. Luckily, three people from the research team are from Myanmar, so they had connections around the area, knew people from the communities or just people working in tea shops. So, then it was sort of a snowball system of those people finding more people and that just kept going like that.


Would you say that is one of the benefits of working in an international research cluster?

Yes, definitely! It was super helpful for me to get support from the Chulalongkorn side of the project. They’ve been conducting research in Mae Sot for a longer time, so they have a lot of insights. If I would have gone to Mae Sot by myself, it would have been very different…


Lastly, can you share a little bit about the future of the research project?

Well, for me personally, I definitely don’t want this story to end with me finishing my master’s thesis. I hope I can find a way to share all the stories that people have told me, with friends or acquaintances. I want to find a way to give these people a voice. But also on a professional level, we are trying to publish our work and Su is doing advocacy work with NGOs. So, hopefully, this might have some influence on the government and the policies. We will try to publish it and then just see what we can do.


Thank you!