Recently I travelled to Isaan in north-eastern Thailand to see for myself the effects of urbanisation. Isaan is easily the poorest part of this kingdom. Homes outside the major centres are simple and rice farming is still the major source of income for most people.
As we drove, the landscape reminded me of rural Australia. The lush tropical green of central and southern Thailand was left behind. This is a more arid part of the country. It is said that the people of Isaan are built tough because they endure hardship.
In recent times this hardship has seen an increase of men and women leaving the region, seeking work in large urban centres. Traditionally such people have been the blue-collar workforce of Bangkok. Leaving home jam-packed into the back of vans, they are the construction workers, cleaners, truck drivers and cooks who run the city. Men drive taxis and women work as hosts in karaoke bars. They work long hours, live in basic conditions and send money home to support their families while their children remain in the care of relatives or western-run children’s homes.¹
The scale of this migration is extraordinary. UNICEF recently reported that “about 21 per cent of children or more than three million children in Thailand do not live with either of their parents due to internal migration”.¹ In the north-eastern region that I visited, this is more severe. Here, up to one third of children are separated from their mum and dad.¹ This is many times more than the scale of internal migration in surrounding countries, and is a significant cause for concern because of the long-term impacts on children’s development and wellbeing.
In about 90% of cases grandparents become the new primary carers of children, but are not always able to provide the care children need. Many local and western individuals and NGOs have tried to help by setting up residential care facilities for children. However, such facilities add to the problem because parents perceive that they will provide better education and life for their children. Many parents don’t know that long-term residential care tends to have negative impact on a young child’s development and can result in a child losing their connection to family and community. In fact, simply being separated from their parents for an extended period puts young children at greater risk of developmental and language delays. This disadvantage continues to impact them into adulthood.²
Our aim is to take a proactive approach to scaling down the use of residential care and assisting children within the context of their families. Programs such as Safe and Informed Migration and Keeping Families Together are working in partnership with local community leaders, the local church, the Thai government and UNHCR. Our work with Keeping Families Together mobilises the local church and community to support families affected by economic migration through holistic development trainings, income generation assistance, educational opportunities, psychosocial support, health care, and spiritual transformation. The local church’s engagement demonstrates the love of God in action and bears witness to an eternal Kingdom where every child matters.
Emmanuel and Marie Clare are Partners working in Thailand with Step Ahead (Keeping Families Together). They have recently completed language study and are now using their skills in education and health to support Thai families alongside the local church.
1 “More than 3 million children in Thailand do not live with their parents” (24 June 2014) at www.unicef.org
2 The Impact of Internal Migration on Early Childhood Well-Being and Development by Mahidol University and UNICEF (April 2016) at www.ipsr.mahidol.ac.th/ipsrbeta/en/BookReport.aspx