For the last 20 years, the Thai border with Myanmar has played host to hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants, escaping economic deprivation and political persecution at home. This situation is exacerbated by armed conflict in eastern Myanmar coupled with a military dictatorship that systematically denies access to education, healthcare and livelihoods to some ethnic groups.
The real challenge is for migrant children from Myanmar who want to stay out of the country and access Thai schools, learn Thai language and gain a Thai ID card. This offers the most possibility for their futures and is our goal for many children we work with in the border areas.
Since 2012, ADMCF has worked in Mae Sot with Migrant Education (ME), and, more broadly, has supported the education of migrant children in the area since 2009, in partnership with the Kennedy Family Foundation and Firetree Asia Foundation.
This year, ME will close its doors, following the relocation to Western countries of key staff members, who for 15 years have lived in the area as registered refugees from Myanmar.
At the same time, there are other changes regionally that affect the work with children in the border areas. Myanmar continues to “open-up”, allowing former migrants to return – and many donors to work more freely inside the country. Consequently, many organisations and donors have abruptly stopped working in the Mae Sot border area and resumed activities instead inside Myanmar, leaving long-term programmes and projects to others, or shutting them down completely.
The pace of change in formerly sleepy Mae Sot has also picked up since the area was designated a ‘Special Economic Zone’, and plans were announced for a THB 3.9 billion four-lane bridge between Thailand and Myanmar that is slated to start in September.
But change does not diminish the need for support for the migrant children who continue to cross the border into Thailand, by themselves or with their families. The reality is that the closure of several Migrant Learning Centres in the area will have a real impact on their education. Thousands may now not have the chance to continue their studies as those that remain open are at capacity.
The growing global interest in Myanmar and consequent change in donor priorities means trouble for migrants who cannot return home due to the lack of job and education opportunities in their home villages as well as the still fragile political situation.
ME’s goal from the beginning was to work in cooperation with Thai education authorities to help transfer children into Thai government schools. ME worked with the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Thailand to ensure that the Thai language trainers in their learning centres were MoE approved, and to promote the transfer of pre-school children directly into grade 1 Government schools. This close cooperation between ME and the MoE offered the best hope for migrant children living in Thailand, and was something we were keen to see continue.
With ME phasing out, Help Without Frontiers (HWF), a local Thai Foundation that shares the same goals as ME, was approached to support 1,209 students at the five former ME Migrant Learning Centres and 105 students to complete their education in Thai Government Schools. ADMCF, with additional support from the Kennedy Family Foundation and Firetree Asia Foundation, is funding the running costs of the five learning centres this year to ensure the project can continue.
On a recent trip to Mae Sot, I was impressed with the level of monitoring and professionalism. Although giving families the option for migrant children to integrate into Thai government schools is vital, the changing environment means that there is also a trend of children and families coming to Thailand with a shorter-term view, and then returning to Myanmar.
In this circumstance, there is no benefit for children to attend Thai schools as there is no crossover between the Thai and Myanmar education systems. HWF have therefore adopted the MoE-approved primary Myanmar education system in their learning centres. This allows the children to enter the equivalent school year when they return to Myanmar.
Since HWF is a Thai foundation, staff members have access at government level, allowing them more influence on the landscape of migrant education. They are also able more effectively to pressure Thai public schools to accept migrant children – as mandated by the 2006 Education for All law.
The forward-thinking approach taken by HWF, and previously ME, allows for migrant children to have the best chance at completing their education, gaining official ID documents, integrating into society and ensuring a better future.
Written by Sarah Cottee