Friendship Bridge

The Friendship Bridge, official border between Thailand and Burma.

“… estimated 1.8 to 2 million migrant workers in Thailand.”


Thailand shares a 2,401 km border with Burma and has been host to a steady flow of migrants, refugees and other displaced people from Burma. Burma has suffered decades of rule by a military dictatorship that persecuted many ethnic minorities and caused immense deprivation for the entire population of Burma through its oppression, corruption and mismanagement.

Burmese Housing

Typical housing for Burmese migrants

Human rights violations, military conflict and a lack of economic or other opportunities have led hundreds of thousands of people to flee Burma and settle in Thailand. An estimated 160,000 people been granted temporary asylum and live in refugee camps along the border. However, for the vast majority of those wanting to escape extreme poverty and repression, their only option has been to join the ranks of the estimated 1.8 to 2 million migrant workers in Thailand. Many of these migrant workers come specifically to try and find a safer life and educational opportunities for their children.

Recent political changes have raised migrants’ hopes of a return home. However, unless there are significant economic reforms for all ethnic groups, as well as the guarantee of political stability and a peaceful future, many migrants will continue to live and work in Thailand, at least in the short to medium term.

Burmese Market

The Burmese Markets in Mae Sot is a place where migrants can sell their produce and seek employment.

The vast majority of these migrant workers are undocumented, poor, uneducated and do not speak Thai. Thus, they are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The Thai government has done little to ensure that basic rights are extended to migrant workers and their families. As a result most migrants are treated as third-class citizens with no rights and no recourse in the event of abuse.

A majority suffer from a lack of adequate housing and shelter, high rates of malnutrition and disease with little or no access to healthcare. They often have to accept employment on any terms, which means that many employers give limited recognition to the protections supposedly afforded by Thai law (such as minimum wage, safe working conditions, maximum hours etc.). On top of this, migrants often have to accept whatever other injustices they may suffer at the hands of the general population.

Theft, physical or sexual abuse, harassment, and extortion all occur without recourse for the offenders. Unlike refugees, such migrants do not qualify for official protection from international agencies. As a result, they live in constant jeopardy of exploitation, abuse, arrest, imprisonment and deportation.

According to the Human Rights Watch 2010 Report, From the Tiger to the Crocodile, “Human rights violations inflicted on migrants by police and local officials are exacerbated by the pervasive climate of impunity in Thailand. Migrants suffer silently and rarely complain because they fear retribution, are not proficient enough in the Thai language to protest, or lack faith in Thai institutions that too often turn a blind eye to their plight.”

Students from Green Water Learning Centre

Students from Green Water Learning Centre, a remote primary school in the Phrob Pra area.

“Migrant learning centres were established to give all migrant children access to quality education that is relevant and useful to them.”

Children and education

The children of migrant workers are particularly vulnerable and are constantly denied their rights as children. As migrant families commonly relocate in search of work, migrant children are often left to fend for themselves or have to work to support the family.

Children in Trucks

Children, livestock, produce are often seen piled in the back of trucks.

Youth are especially at risk of exploitation, drug abuse, sexual abuse, trafficking and disease. Even though Thailand follows an Education for All policy, language is still a major barrier for migrant children. Add to this, to the relatively large costs for attending Thai schools (such as uniforms, food, supplies and transportation) and the desire from migrant parents for their children to study their mother language, history and culture. Many families are also fearful of becoming involved in Thai institutions as they feel that it may leave them open to arrest. The need for a separate migrant school system is clearer than ever.

Migrant learning centres were established to give all migrant children access to quality education that is relevant and useful to them. Thanks to the support of donors and NGOs, most migrant learning centres around Mae Sot have come a long way from the early days when people ran classrooms out of bamboo huts and shops. INGO’s such as World Education (WE) and Taipei Overseas Peace Service (TOPS) have for many years worked with BMWEC to train teachers and set standards within the classroom and across all schools. Others, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU) have supported child health and learning centre sanitation. This has required (and continues to require) tremendous work, cooperation and understanding between BMWEC, learning centres, migrant communities, interested NGOs and the Thai authorities. Difficult issues which have needed to be addressed collectively include:

  • Catering for the needs of many different ethnicities, languages and religions.
  • Deciding what languages to teach and/or to teach which subjects in, in which schools.
  • Developing curricula which are as relevant and useful as possible given the needs and opportunities of specific communities.
  • Standardising curricula training teachers up to the requisite standards.
  • Finding ways to facilitate integration into Thai society.
  • Encouraging and facilitating the school attendance of Burmese migrant children to receive an education.
  • Encouraging and facilitating the continuation of studies beyond primary education into secondary, vocational, and tertiary programs.
  • Establishing higher grades in more schools so that more students can progress through primary, middle, secondary and even further education.
  • Creating pathways (such as vocational opportunities) so that students are able to capitalize on their educational achievements and find commensurate employment opportunities.

With many NGOs, the Thai Ministry of Education (MOE), organizations and community members interested and involved in migrant education, continuing coordination amongst these groups is essential to the success of migrant education.

BMWEC, together with NGOs and other community organizations have worked closely with the Thai MOE in the Mae Sot area over recent years. The learning centres that are co-ordinated by BMWEC give the students and teachers protection from arrest and deportation. Legislation has been proposed at the national level to ‘register’ and regulate migrant learning centres, but the progress of the relevant draft legislation has been interrupted by higher priorities. Even if this legislation is eventually passed, it does not state when the Thai government will provide any funding. It is crucial that outside support for BMWEC continues in order to keep these vulnerable students in the schools and increase the chances of a better life for them in the future through quality education.