Stateless, but still in need of help

Stateless, but still in need of help

Centers for the children of migrants are running short of donor cash

Lessons to learn: Two Myanmar children study in a classroom which tends to flood during heavy rainfall along the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot district, Tak.
Lessons to learn: Two Myanmar children study in a classroom which tends to flood during heavy rainfall along the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot district, Tak.

The Migrant Learning Centers (MLCs), which take care of 15,139 migrant students in Tak province, have called for immediate help as the living conditions of the children in its care are poor.

While humanitarian agencies and international donors are lending their support, the number of children keeps rising and the situation is still a challenge.

More than 60 MLC centers, supervised by Tak Primary Education Service Area Office 2, have served as a base for Burmese children for over a decade.

Crossing the border to Thailand along with their parents, running away from home because of the pandemic, or fleeing Myanmar because of the conflict there, these youngsters ended up at MLC sites, which provide them with education, food and shelter.

Recently, a Bangkok Post reporter visited some of the centers during a food-aid mission organised by Unesco and had a chance to meet MLC authorities.

Among their biggest worries is the lack of funds which has led to food and clean water shortages, overcrowded classrooms and unsafe living conditions. Some of the centers have no electricity and are isolated.

"If no one comes to help, these children will continue to live in hardship. Some centers are provided with electricity connections but they cannot bear the cost of electricity. Without electricity, we cannot store food, nor pump water," said a headmaster of one of the MLC centers.

"Some days when there's no sunlight, especially in the rainy season, the whole center is covered in darkness," he added.

At most centers, there are water wells to store rainwater and underground water. The water is often cloudy and muddy, and authorities say it is dangerous to consume as it might be contaminated with pesticides from the surrounding farmstead. The water wells could dry up in the drought season, so children have to bathe in the river.

The number of students at the MLC has increased dramatically since the coup in Myanmar last year.

At some sites, one big classroom is shared by more than 150 students aged from two to 18 years old. At one particular center, 14 teachers have to take care of 237 students. The overcrowded conditions lead to steep costs in essential services including rent and utility fees.

Because of the scarcity of space, some students have to take classes in the canteen or the kitchen while teachers cook for them.

Muddling through: The muddy entrance to the Migrant Learning Center (MLC) that is located close to the Myanmar-Thailand border in Mae Sot district of Tak.

In overcrowded shelters, disease spreads easily.

According to a principal of an MLC center, 10 students contracted chickenpox recently. He could not take them to the hospital because these children lack documents. He took some to a civil society clinic and sent the rest back to be treated in Myanmar.

Most MLC teachers have multiple responsibilities, from teaching to cooking. Many are paid by foreign donors. Some centers are fortunate to have teachers' salaries funded by donors, while others have to fend for themselves.

Some teachers work without pay. One particular teacher who is good at drawing sells his work to help support the center.

Despite the odds, MLC staff keep up their spirits and serve not just as teachers but also as guardians, cooks, mechanics and even doctors for the children. "I want them to have a chance to study at a higher level and gain knowledge," one teacher said.

"When they come to our land, we have to take care of them, or many problems will follow.

"If we can have them live in our country peacefully, they could be a great link that fosters a better friendship between Myanmar and Thailand in the future."

Unesco's role

Unesco has been working with Burmese migrant children as a sponsorship partner with the province and the MLC for almost 10 years.

"To ensure a right to education among these children also means ensuring stability and security when they are at school," says Rika Yorozu, the Unesco Head of Executive Office.

"They must be kept safe from exploitation along the border including child trafficking and child labour. Society must ensure every child has the opportunity to study and be with other children and feel safe.

"The right to education also includes providing healthy living for the students."

While Unesco has been able to support all 64 MLC sites in terms of sanitation, its support for meals could only reach 20 center.

Ms Yorozu said the issue of providing nutritious school meals at MLC centers in Tak province was addressed during a global food summit a few years ago and treated as an urgent request.

As a result, in December 2022, the Japanese government pledged funding over US$2.1 million (73.3 million baht) to education in emergencies project implemented by UNESCO in collaboration with Tak PESAO 2 for the MLCs in Tak province.

"Although we are selective, we are trying to deal through our project that will reach out to the Education Ministry so they understand what is happening in this province," she said.

More classrooms, sanitation facilities and roofs will be installed. Plans for a digital school that provides learning support to reduce overcrowding and pressure on teacher hires is also in the works.

"We will try to provide comprehensive support to these MLC centers. While we want to expand our digital school, we need to ensure they have basic needs first," she added.

After seeing the hardship among these children, she wanted society to know about their plight at the MLCs and also those children who have yet to be given a slot at the center.

"We do not want humanitarian aid to stop should our intervention stop. That is our worry.

"I hope for more international community support for these MLCs because they rely on donors," she said.

Ms Yorozu said Tak province and the Migrant Educational Coordination Center were doing a good job. She appreciated the government for recognising that these children have the right to education and for trying its best to work with the private sector to support them.

Yet the best solution was for peace and democracy to return to Myanmar. Children could return to their families and carry on with the studies they started at the MLCs.

"I hope other UN agencies come forward and work with us because this is a humanitarian emergency," she said.

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