Students in the Learning Center for Quality of Life Development at the Thai-Burma Border, Ranong. (Photo by Don Doll, SJ)

“I will never go back to Kawthaung. There is no one to protect me and the soldiers treat us badly.” Kawthaung is the hometown of 12-year-old Nipa, a Burmese girl who has lived in Thailand, just across the border, ever since she can remember. Nipa’s parents are among thousands of migrants who eke out a living in Ranong, a town in southern Thailand, which is a notorious gateway for irregular migration.

Most migrants in Ranong are members of Burma’s Mon ethnic minority. There have been Mon people on the Thai side of the border for decades and the situation does not look set to change anytime soon. Life in Mon State in Burma is very tough; economic hardship, aggravated by inflation and rising food prices, is coupled with arbitrary taxation, regular harassment, forced labour and land confiscation by the Burmese army.

In Thailand, the migrants usually work in the fishing industry, most of them illegally, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and deportation. Life may be better than back home but nonetheless it remains hard. To give an idea, a migrant family usually spends half its meagre earnings to rent a four-by-three room.

While migrants put in long hours of work, their children get an education in informal learning centres, which have been supported by JRS since 2002. The centres started off as babysitting facilities and were turned into classrooms by innovative care workers. Today, the centres coach children aged between five and 15 years in a range of subjects. JRS aid includes developing and maintaining six centres, capacity-building and stipends for teachers and uniforms and books for pupils. Lessons are in Burmese.

The provision of schooling meets an urgent need because the access of migrant children to mainstream education is hindered by several obstacles. Prior to 2005, migrants had their school applications rejected even if they had the right academic qualifications. That year saw a turning point with a Cabinet decision to allow every child, regardless of nationality, to attend mainstream schools. How much this decision is implemented in reality is another matter: the language barrier, costs involved and reluctance of some schools to accept non-Thai children, are among the factors impeding real integration. In 2006, JRS developed a project to prepare children wishing to attend Thai schools, providing not only language classes but ensuring that each child is followed up during the difficult transition from familiar to new surroundings.

Nipa moved from a learning centre to a local school. She started off her education at the Lotus Pond Centre, where she learned Thai from local volunteers. When JRS asked Nipa if she wanted to go to a Thai school, she accepted. “I remember I was so excited that I woke up at 5am for my first day,” Nipa recalls. “But some children made fun of me because I am not Thai. Luckily I soon made friends.”

Apart from advocating for the integration of Burmese children in Thai schools, JRS calls for the full legalisation of the learning centres, in the conviction that mainstream schooling is not the only route to quality education. In 2007, Ranong’s local administration recognised the centres as Thai-Myanmar Border Quality of Life Centres however neither their curriculum nor the certificates they issue are recognised as yet. Much remains to be done but we are seeing progress and believe that education for all can eventually be a reality in Thailand.  

Roisai Wongsuban, former information and advocacy officer, JRS Thailand

This article was first published in Servir December 2007

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