10 Minutes To Read

The Socio-Economic Struggles of Cyclone Nargis’ Migrants in Yangon

10 Minutes To Read

Myo Min explores the long-term effects of Myanmar’s 2008 Cyclone Nargis.

When considering stateless people (i.e. those people who do not have citizenship) in Myanmar, the first groups that may come to mind might be non-Buddhist religious groups and non-Bamar ethnic groups. Yet, we also need to consider Bamar Buddhists, particularly those impacted by Cyclone Nargis. As a result of the ignorance of Myanmar’s Immigration officials, groups like Cyclone Nargis victims haven’t been given adequate attention. This article is concerned with these victims, and, in particular, the people who lost their citizenship identification during Cyclone Nargis, largely due to the immigration system’s deficiencies.

On May 2, 2008, tropical Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster recorded in Myanmar’s history, devastated the country, and especially the Ayeyawady Delta region. Yet, even today, the adversity of the catastrophe hasn’t ended for some victims who have migrated to Yangon, who lost their citizenship documentation and haven’t recovered it. Due to their lack of citizenship documentation, these individuals have to face several challenges in their daily social lives and several limitations in political rights, social rights, economic rights, public health care and civil rights.

The statistics as to how many Nargis victims are without citizenship in Yangon is unknown because no research has ever been conducted on the issue until now. However, Nargis victims certainly contribute to the considerable number of stateless individuals in Myanmar because one direct effect of Nargis was the destruction or severe damage of over 800,000 houses. It also had a devastating impact on the environment, destroying paddy fields and killing tens of thousands of farm animals. As a result of these losses— both of homes and livelihoods— victims migrated to different cities in Myanmar and to other places they could reach, as there were no entitlements for victims and IDPs to receive protection and assistance from the country. The factors spurring this migration were the limited aid and assistance available to victims; the government denied or delayed the entry of international ships carrying relief supplies and even arrested citizens for undertaking local relief efforts. More than 1000 people migrated to Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border, so it can be expected that a much higher number of people migrated to Yangon because it is relatively easier to reach. Ultimately, many of these migrants were left without citizenship documents.

Almost one-third of the population of Myanmar does not have citizenship documentation. Until now, the largest population of stateless persons globally are resident in Myanmar: the Rohingya of Rakhine State, estimated to be a population of more than one million people, which amounts to less than two per cent of the more than 50 million people in Myanmar. Whilst statelessness issues in Myanmar related to populations in Rakhine State are well-documented, to date there has not been a comprehensive review of the barriers that are experienced because of other reasons, including due to Cyclone Nargis.

The Impact of Cyclone Nargis

Tropical Cyclone Nargis, a category 4 storm that that struck the Ayeyawady Delta, Yangon (Rangoon) and other parts of Lower (southern) Myanmar on 2–3 May 2008, was the biggest natural disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history and the most destructive cyclone in the eastern Indian Ocean region since 1991. The final number of casualties is still unknown, but in late June 2008, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that 2.4 million people were affected and the numbers of dead and/or missing were more than 140,000, with another 1 million people displaced.

However, the government’s initial response to the cyclone shocked the world. International agencies and local donors were prohibited from delivering aid, which, in turn, caused the lives and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people to be put in jeopardy. The government refused to issue visas to international aid workers and insisted that only government authorities themselves be allowed to distribute the aid. It also restricted access to the most affected areas. It was only days later, and after considerable international pressure, that the regime made it easier for aid workers and supplies to enter Myanmar. But the government’s relationship with international and local relief agencies remained fraught in the months that followed – which potentially put the lives of survivors at risk.

Delays in the delivery of aid left millions of people injured, hungry and homeless. More than 700,000 homes were fully or partially destroyed. The districts with a high volume of outmigration are concentrated in Ayeyawady Region. Ayeyawady lost more than 80,000 migrants to North Yangon in the five years prior to the Myanmar National Census of 2014. Most of them lost their citizenship documents in Nargis and have not been able to replace these documents because they do not have the resources to pay the associated fees or collect the supporting information from their birth village that is needed to replace their card. Without a citizenship scrutiny card (CSC), they are limited in the work they can undertake, and live week to week working at factories and industries.

What Does it Mean to be Without Citizenship in Myanmar?

“Citizenship” is a legal concept describing an individual’s relationship to the state. In contrast, “statelessness” is when somebody does not have citizenship of any state. However, citizenship is not only a legal status; it is also a bundle of rights and duties as well as a civic, law and customs-abiding attitude.

However, according to the 2008 Constitution, one of the main issues with citizen’s rights is the right to citizenship itself. Entitlement to citizenship is restrictively defined in Myanmar and most rights are confined to citizens. Other issues are that there are many clauses under which rights can be restricted or suspended, and rights are subject to “the law.” Moreover, Myanmar does not follow the jus soli policy adopted in many countries that grants citizenship at birth to children born within the national territory. Although Cyclone Nargis victims were citizens of Myanmar just over 10 years ago, without current CSCs, not only have they now lost the right to public employment, but also to be hired in private industries or factories that require proof of identity. According to Post Nargis Periodic Review by the Tripartite Core Group, the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis likely forced households to change their dwellings and, as a result, household heads who moved to new dwellings after Cyclone Nargis were less likely to have a CSC than those who did not move.

The information used in this article is based on pilot data of 15 interviews, conducted for research on socio-economic conditions of squatters in Shwe Pyi Thar under the auspices of the Yangon School of Political Science (YSPS). A woman living in Shwe Pyi Thar said that every time she tried to obtain her CSC, she was asked to return to her village of origin to obtain information that proves her identity, and documentation that proves her ancestor’s citizenship — all of which she lost in the cyclone. During the last few years, she has attempted many times to get another CSC because it is crucial to have if applying to a formal job, if renting a house, as well as for the future of her children. She added that, sometimes, authorities even shouted at her. The process for applying for and retaining citizenship documentation requires the applicant to pay fees to MoLIP (Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population) and attend numerous appointments. The capacity to pay “unofficial fees including pocket-fees” to the authorities was described by more than half of the respondents as the easiest way to obtain citizenship documentation, especially in the case of an applicant who cannot confirm their ancestor’s citizenship.

In fact, the victims of Cyclone Nargis are struggling to find the resources necessary to pay even the required official fees, to take time off work to attend appointments with MoLIP officers, and to travel back to their home villages to obtain information confirming their ancestors’ citizenship, as required. If their parents and/or grandparents are deceased, then this can create yet another barrier to obtaining proof of their ancestors’ citizenship. In this case, the applicant would be required to travel back to their village to obtain a “recommendation letter” from the head of the village. The respondent noted that this is also sometimes difficult because the village head refuses to provide such information. Consequently, it compels them to take low-paid, casual and informal jobs, with no stable incomes. Since their income is too low to pay rent, they settle as squatters or informal settlers, which is illegal in Myanmar.

Informal Settlements

Many of the Nargis survivors migrated to Yangon— mainly in industrial zones such as Hlainghthaya, Dagon Myo Thit (Seikkan), Shwe Pyi Thar and, North and South Okkalapa— in order to seek job opportunities and with the hope of a better life. Ultimately, they have become one of the most vulnerable communities in Myanmar. The very first barrier they face due to their lack of a CSC is related to their ability to afford to settle legally. According to UN-HABITAT, Yangon has approximately 300,000 squatters, and many are from the Ayeyawady Region and arrived after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008.

For instance, one woman we interviewed who had built a bamboo house atop a gutter in an informal settlement explained that, when she first arrived in Yangon with her two little children after losing her husband and all their possessions in Cyclone Nargis, a family relative living in Shwe Pyi Thar allowed them to stay in their house for the first few months. She started working in a nearby garment factory with their help, as they also worked in the same factory. Then, she had to manage her own house because her children; a daughter and a son, had grown up. They are teenagers now, and the relative’s house is also very tiny. But she cannot rent a house because she does not have a CSC and because she cannot afford it financially. It is risky to rent on mutual agreement because there is no legal protection from the authorities, and the landlords can cheat renters easily. At the same time, they fear that the government will come and evict them, as, since the new government came in, it is evicting squatters around the factory’s zones.

Ultimately, they are left with no options other than informal settlements, especially under these conditions. Many Nargis survivors on Yangon’s periphery live informally like “a city within a city.” This informality includes electricity. They have to buy electricity from other people who make part of their living from having a large generator with wires connected to surrounding households. At the same time, they are always fearful of getting evicted because the government believes that squatters are one of the barriers to building economic zones and other commercial projects, and to opening up the country’s economy since Myanmar’s democratization process started. While hostels or boarding houses are a cheap option for some people, living there also means enduring overcrowded and dire conditions. Many hostels resemble small prison rooms, divided from each other by thin walls.

The Yangon Region Government teamed up with UN Habitat (Myanmar) to find sustainable solutions for Yangon’s slums and informal settlements in 2018. “We need to draw short-term and long-term plans for the upgrade of slums,” said U Phyo Min Thein, the Yangon Region Chief Minister, at the concluding session of a workshop on Slums and Informal Settlements in Yangon Region. He promised to find ways to provide job opportunities, income, education, and healthcare to slum dwellers. However, these need to be implemented practically and, furthermore, they need to address informal employment, otherwise creating job opportunities won’t benefit people missing citizenship documentation, like Nargis migrants.

Informal Employment

The employees in either the formal or informal sector are considered to have informal jobs if their employment relationship is, in law or in practice, not subject to national labour legislation, income taxation, social protection or entitlement to certain employment benefits (such as advance notice of dismissal, severance pay or paid annual or sick leave).

In order to get a formal job, people need to provide CSCs not only to employers but also get recommendation letters from their ward administrator and a background check letter from a nearby police station. These additional documents are often required for formal employment. Therefore, as shown in an interview with a young woman in her twenties, many Nargis victims rely on borrowing a relative’s CSC to get jobs in factories. As a result, in the case of this young woman, she needs to pay a certain amount of her salary to that relative. She also explained that she needed to pay “tea money”, to the ward administrator for a recommendation letter and the police station for the background check letter, which are supposed to be given free of charge. She also added that she does not dare to complain about work-place harassment or labour rights abuses such as very low wages, unlawful wage deduction (for sick leave, for example), very long working days, or unpaid and forced overtime, due to her lack of identity documentation.

Moreover, those without CSCs do not have the opportunity to work abroad legally. Since Myanmar opened up its economy in 2010, Myanmar has sent more workers to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and some countries in the Middle East through legal employment agencies. Myanmar sent 30,326 workers to work abroad through legal routes in May 2019 alone, according to the country’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population.

When it comes to those working informally, like Cyclone Nargis victims who migrated to Yangon, the government needs to consider the broader context and real challenges of informal employment. Although the government is creating more jobs through industrialization, people without CSCs do not have legal access to new positions and are often trapped by the exploitation of their employers. Hence, the concern of re-issuing CSCs to Nargis’ victims needs to be addressed immediately, and not only for the sake of formal settlements and formal employment. This is also for the sake of access to education for their children.

Limited Access to Education

Informal settlements and informal employment negatively affect the livelihoods of Nargis victims who migrated to Yangon, but the experience of not having formal documentation also leads to disinvestment in critical areas such as the education of themselves and their children. This is because in enrolling in primary school, for example, they need to submit birth certificates with household lists, recommendation letters or parents’ ID card numbers. Formal documents have become a barrier to accessing education and such barriers are now even more prevalent with respect to attaining higher education and collecting degree certificates, in the case that Nargis victims complete university. To enroll a child in school, it is also necessary to pay enrollment fees, furniture fees, and other miscellaneous fees such as fees for ceremonies paying homage to the teacher. While enrollment fees are officially the only fees nowadays, many still have to pay for miscellaneous fees, collected by the school teacher. Nargis victims’ poverty and lack of formal documents, as well as high informal costs, bring parents to a situation where they put less emphasis on their children’s education and, as a result, many youngsters of Nargis victims stay away from formal schooling and have to work to support their family from a young age.

Although there are some charity organizations that have been supporting education for impoverished children, these programs still need to be improved in terms of integrating these children into society and, ideally, enrolling them in a government school. Last but not least, Nargis victims often have very low access to formal justice institutions, so they rely on informal mechanisms. Education will also help them to integrate into society and to solve their problems formally, as they often have been struggling and facing various hardships without educational knowledge. If this is to happen, Nargis victims and their children will have a good education and increased knowledge of the legal systems, as well as better livelihoods.

Factors to Improve Documentation Rights Enforcement

The case of stateless Nargis victims is relatively easier to solve compared to the case of other ethnic and religious minority groups, who have faced similar problems for generations. It is easier in terms of duration, because it happened not long ago, and in size, because the population of Nargis victims who migrated to Yangon is smaller than other minorities. The Nargis migrants are different from other migrants who moved to Yangon for a better life not because their livelihood was destroyed but because, during the cyclone, they lost their citizenship, too. Since they have lost almost all their belongings, including their documents, they cannot be expected to follow the existing procedures set up by the immigration and population authorities.

As Myanmar is especially vulnerable to natural disasters, the country needs to have a better system of issuing citizenship documentation, particularly for those who have lost their citizenship documents. This problem can be solved by facilitating information sharing and public awareness campaigns about existing avenues for administrative and judicial redress regarding refusals or other decisions affecting migrants’ citizenship status. The country needs to provide safeguards to prevent the risk of statelessness and access to documentations on the basis of objective criteria, such as a witness statement from a credible member of the community to prove the victims’ long residence in their hometown and to confirm their account of missing documents. It also needs to ensure that those who cannot provide objective proof are able to acquire citizenship through a facilitated naturalization procedure. Furthermore, civil society can help by developing programs that build the capacities of community leaders regarding issues associated with civil documentation and procedures, so they can better assist applicants, reducing the complexity and multi-stage process of citizenship.

Myo Min is a Junior Researcher at the Yangon School of Political Science where he has contributed to research projects on political participation in Myanmar and worked on the Digital Public Survey. His research focuses on questions of citizenship and social cohesion in Myanmar.