Navigating the Myanmar–Thailand–Malaysia Border: The Escape Strategies of Burmese Refugees from Chin State, Myanmar, to Battle Creek, Michigan

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 9:15 AM
Room: 313+314
Oral Presentation
Manashi RAY , West Virginia State University, Institute, WV
Forced migrants who flee their home countries as part of a mass movement face significantly different realities than ‘refugees’, as conventionally understood and legally defined in the West.  Forced migrants typically lack secure legal status and access to any form of welfare system. Additionally, because they lack social structures that support international migration, they often engage in ‘step-migration’. Before arriving at their final destination, they move to nearby countries where they can obtain assistance from other migrants, employers and smugglers who are absent in their native communities. Scholars who study forced migration and/or illegal migration focus especially on how migrants use resources at their points of origin or destination or both, but they always overlook the actual border-crossing experience of these vulnerable migrants.

Based on twenty-one biographical narrative interviews with Burmese refugees in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 20122013, this paper examines how illegal border crossing from Myanmar’s Chin State to Thailand and then to Malaysia (and later to the United States after migrants are accepted as refugees by the UNHCR in Malaysia) is a migration strategy rather than an ‘end state’ and, among other factors, is related to the enormous difficulties of migrating legally to Malaysia. The paper examines hazardous border crossing (which requires clandestine agents and smugglers for crossing and documentation) and ‘irregular migrant’ status – defined as the lack of legal residence in a nation-state – as essential components of forced migration, which is no longer related only to labor migration and is an expensive, much longer process. Thus, drawing on the concepts of increased border control, stricter immigration policy and definition of citizenship by nation-state, this paper considers the agency of Burmese migrants and raises the question of whether their ability to migrate ‘irregularly’ can be regarded as a resource in the particular context of forced migration.