Myanmar crisis exposes gaps in Thai care for migrant children

The recent deportation of at least 59 children to Myanmar – which has been engulfed in violence since the 2021 military coup – has brought to light many problems in Thailand. The country is still struggling with how to efficiently handle kids fleeing from its strife-torn neighbor, manage its small schools, and more.

The children were deported after being found to have entered Thailand illegally and registering at a school in the Central province of Angthong, hundreds of kilometers from border.

An even bigger group of non-Thai students found at the same school is also facing the threat of deportation. Thai authorities are currently checking their status and entry records.

Angthong’s Thairathwitthaya 6 School reportedly opened its door to kids from border zones after the number of Thai students declined to the point that it risked being closed down.

Education Ministry regulations dictate that a school that has fewer than 10 Pathom 1 or Mathayom 1 students for three consecutive years must be merged with another school. The director of the Thairathwitthaya 6 School has so far denied any wrongdoing over the enrolment of Myanmar and other stateless children.

Education Ministry told to rethink

Prof Sompong Jitradup, a prominent education expert and former lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s (CU) Faculty of Education, points out that the Education Ministry’s core mission is to provide educational services and to protect children.

“We should work together in taking care of children – not banish them,” he commented.

Recognizing that more children from the neighboring country have entered Thailand via border provinces in the face of unrest back in their homeland, Sompong urged relevant authorities to plan how they will deal with a situation that looks set to continue for years to come. Myanmar’s junta has so far ignored ASEAN’s five-point peace plan for the crisis, including the immediate cessation of violence against both armed and civilian resistance.

Sompong said the Education Ministry and relevant authorities should provide educational services and food to asylum-seeking children from the neighboring country at least until it is safe for them to return to their homeland.

That view is shared by Tuenjai Deetes, a former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission and a founding member of the Hill Area and Community Development Foundation (HADF).

“In this situation, the government should focus on children’s rights, child protection, and the ‘Education for All’ policy,” Tuenjai said.

Since 2005, the government has allowed children who have no official identification papers to enrol in Thai public schools.

Loopholes exposed

School executives’ desperate efforts to recruit students – with some going as far as importing kids from other areas or even neighboring countries – have reportedly been going on behind the scenes for several decades now.

These efforts stem not just from the concern that their schools could close, leaving local students facing difficulties finding a new place to enrol or having to travel further to school. More often than not, the efforts are rooted in the executives’ fear of losing their posts and perks that come from running the school.

Because the Education Ministry has allowed children to study at state schools no matter what their nationality and legal status, many rural schools have admitted stateless children.

While rights activists may applaud schools for helping stateless children, by law, school executives can be arrested for illegally bringing foreign children into Thailand.

“Besides, it is by no means appropriate for a school in Angthong to raise the number of its stateless students from 10 or 20 to more than 100. Such a move could constitute a breach of regulations,” Sompong commented.

Thailand must simplify processes to solve statelessness

Education opportunities for stateless children

Santiphong Moonfong, director of the Legal Status Network Foundation, pointed out that Thailand has long offered educational opportunities to stateless children. Some kids come to Thailand without their parents, possibly accompanying other adults or their friends, in the hope of attending classes. Others arrive with their parents, who work for Thai employers in the informal sector. Some kids are more fortunate in that their parents come to Thailand legally and hold work permits. Some other stateless children enter Thailand as novice monks. Many of these children are stateless because the government of their country refuses to recognize their status.

“In order for these children to study at Thai schools, Thailand’s educational system places them in the ‘G’ category. Children in category G can enrol in a public school,” he said.

State schools submit their student registrations to the Education Ministry on June 10 every year, and children included in category G are recognized as legitimate students. The problem comes half a year later, when the stateless children whose status cannot be verified by December 10 are at risk of being deported.

At present, more than 80,000 students in category G have not yet completed their identity verification. The process is slow because registrars often have doubts as to whether the children should really be categorized in the G group.

Better management for better future

Santiphong hopes the problem at the Anthong school where 126 stateless children were found, will shed light on hundreds of thousands of category-G students in Thailand and pave the way for them all to enjoy a better future.

He said with proper management, these children should be able to study and grow into quality adults.

“For example, if they enter Thailand via Chiang Rai, they should be allowed to study and live in Chiang Rai only. Their schools must help in reporting their information to the Interior Ministry too,” he said.

Tuenjai pointed out that border provinces have learning centers that could also support these children. Some centers even use an international curriculum whereby students learn an ethnic language, Thai language, and also English language. Upon graduating, their credentials are also recognized internationally.

The CU Asian Research Center for Migration told a recent seminar that Thai authorities should also consider certifying the skills of adult migrants from neighboring countries because many of them were highly skilled. Among these migrants are trained doctors, teachers, and lawyers.

“Thailand should take a proactive approach in handling migrants, both kids and adults,” it recommended.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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