Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Thai Migration

From the FT:

Learn to read Thai, get an education

By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok

Published: July 17 2007 17:55 | Last updated: July 17 2007 17:55

In the dilapidated former canteen of Thailand’s Wat Si Sutharam School, about 20 Burmese children – aged five to 15 – sit on benches, carefully copying the first letter of the Thai alphabet in lined notebooks. Among them is 10-year-old Sai Htaw, a boy from Burma’s ethnic Mon minority, whose mother, San Aye, a worker in the coastal province of Samut Sakorn’s vast seafood-processing factory, hovers nearby.

Sai Htaw has a Thai name (Amporn) and speaks Thai with ease. But he neither reads nor writes it. During what should have been the early years of his education he was barred from Thai schools because he lacked a birth certificate, something issued only to Thai citizens.

Now, toiling in the spartan classroom, supervised by volunteer teachers from a labour rights group, Sai Htaw is on the front line of what is likely to be an arduous struggle: the push to secure formal education for the often Thai-born children of migrant workers from Burma.

With a recent decision by Bangkok to open schools to all, Sai Htaw and his classmates have been promised places in schools alongside Thai children – once they grasp the basics of reading and writing Thai. Ms San Aye is elated: “I want him to study as much as he can.”

As Asian economies have grown increasingly dependent on foreign workers, governments across the region are confronting the social policy problems the migrants bring with them.

Educating the children of foreign workers is a challenge Asian governments have barely begun to recognise. Most try to avoid it by accepting only male migrants without families, while ignoring migrants’ children and their special needs.

Schools in the Japanese town of Hamamatsu, for example, receive no government help to cope with assimilating the mainly Portuguese speaking children of the area’s Brazilian-Japanese migrants, instead depending on bilingual volunteers. In the Malaysian province of Sabah, children of Indonesian and Philippine migrant workers are barred from government schools and often end up toiling as labourers in the market.

But nowhere is the matter more pressing than in Thailand, where tens of thousands of migrant children from military-ruled Burma are growing up without formal education and thus vulnerable to exploitation.

Decades of political repression, ethnic conflict and economic stagnation have driven an estimated 1.5m people from Burma across the border into Thailand to work in agriculture, construction, fishing, seafood processing and manufacturing.

For years, Thai authorities viewed migrants’ children as an unwanted social burden, leaving their education to Burmese exiles and charities. But in 2005 Bangkok decided that all children in Thailand were entitled to an education regardless of their citizenship or legal status.

Yet despite that promise, only a fraction of migrant children have so far enrolled in government schools; the rest are in informal schools, or the workforce. “The reality is that it is still very difficult for Burmese migrant worker children to study in the Thai government schools,” says Tin Than Aung, of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma.

There is resistance from overcrowded schools, unable to accommodate students whose Thai skills lag behind their classmates’.

“We are trying to push to make the policy real, but the schools do not have the budget for hiring bilingual teachers for these children,” says Chanvit Vasayangkura, vice-governor of Samut Sakhon.

Migrant parents are also wary, especially those in Thailand illegally, who fear any contact with officialdom, says Panudda Boonpala, an International Labour Organisation child labour specialist.

The cost of uniforms, books and transport deters some families from taking children out of free charity schools, while others worry that their children will lose their mother tongue, or be harassed. Many migrant families also depend on school-age children to help out at home, or earn additional income.

Despite the obstacles, some children are gradually making their way into government schools, propelled by their parents’ aspirations.

“These kids are much more ambitious than Thai students, and have much more confidence,” says Panumas Ieamsunthorn, a school­teacher. “When they go home, they are the translators between their parents and the Thai, and they are proud of themselves.”

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