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Migrant schools turn pupils away

Poverty and fighting prompts exodus for education

Children at school in Thailand's northern hills Children at school in Thailand's northern hills
  • Tim France, Mae Sot
  • Thailand
  • May 24, 2011
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New Blood School in Mae Sot is one of hundreds of migrant learning centers that are struggling to cope with the influx of migrants from Myanmar to this village tucked away in the far north of Thailand, and the surrounding border region known as the Golden Triangle.

Since the dubious democratic elections in Myanmar last November, violent skirmishes between incumbent State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) forces and dissident ethnic militias have caused a swelling in the number of refugees or migrants arriving in Thailand.

The principal at New Blood School is now being forced to turn away two or three children every day, referring them to other schools that may be able to care for them, as his school is already operating beyond capacity.

With the start of the new school term imminent, staff expect 450 students to enrol for classes. This number is well beyond the capacity of the school’s premises, staffing ability and food budget.

Administered by Good Friends Centre (GFC) in Mae Sot, the school receives funding from Caritas of 50,000 Thai baht (US$1,660) per month which is spent on food, teachers’ salaries, electricity, water, rent and teaching supplies.

Caritas allocated this budget for the last academic year to help support 230 students and the rate at which the numbers have grown surprised Father Doroteo Reyes, executive director of the National Catholic Commission on Migration.

New Blood receives funds from a number of private donors but their combined contribution is not enough to feed all the students, pay teachers’ salaries, complete the construction of a new boarding house and fix one of the school’s two aged computers.

The Thai community in Mae Sot also helps support the migrants, with reports in some quarters of relief funding from the Thai business community. While New Blood School has received some small token gestures from individual Thai donors, small food contributions for instance, there is nothing in terms of sustained support. Teacher Zaw Wyein Lott said: “[Thai] factory owners and business owners do not want to spare any pennies for our children.”

As the migrant population grows, increasing demand for places and pressure on resources at all learning centers around Mae Sot is partly due to Thai government policies.

Project directors at Good Friends Centre admit that Thai policy towards the education of migrant children is relatively favourable, which is why so many children want in.

Because of the socio-economic conditions is neighbouring Myanmar, children are sent across the border by their parents to be educated, even if that means sending them to refugee camps.

According to New Blood staff, children enrolled at migrant learning centers receive a student card which legally entitles them to stay in Thailand.

Then, on leaving school, they become illegal which creates strong incentive to stay in the education system.

Top students will try to win a place at Minmahaw Education Foundation where they will study for a high school diploma and try for a university place. It is regarded by teachers and students as “one of their escapes”.

The Thai system also accepts a number of migrant students into the government system each year. If accepted into Thai schools, students will be funded by the Thai government right through to university level. “They are very lucky students, they can go to Chulalongkorn university and will get a Thai ID card,” said Lott.

Vocational training is also available at New Blood School for non-academics and this is extended to parents and other migrants through GFC’s community outreach programme. Thai language, agriculture, handicrafts and accounting classes are run to equip ethnic migrants with valuable livelihood skills.

However without additional funding, GFC will struggle to provide these education services to the growing migrant populous in Mae Sot.

Kyaw Zin, fund-raising officer at GFC, said: “Next month we will have difficulties finding sufficient contributions for all three schools [in Thailand], so it seems like we need emergency funding to cover the budget shortage.”

TH14291

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