International Rescue Committee (IRC)

On the streets of Bangkok

A former International Rescue Committee communications officer tours the fabled city to see firsthand how Burmese migrants from Myanmar are surviving as displaced people.

By Emily Holland

Bangkok: the sprawling capital of Thailand inspires all manner of images and intrigue. But for refugees and migrants who fled persecution and hardship in Myanmar and are living in its shadows, the city can mean something very different.
 
A former IRC staff member, I was traveling in Thailand and eager to learn more about the IRC’s work there. I was fortunate to begin my day at the organization’s main office. Kanokwan Rujiralai, an IRC caseworker, was interviewing a young Chinese family seeking admission to the U.S. as refugees. Kanokwan patiently asked the husband and wife about their experiences in China while their three-year-old daughter sat on the floor drawing pictures on a tablet. 
 
“If you return to your country, what will happen to you?” Kanokwan asked the husband, who sat ramrod straight in a smart shirt and tie. His wife attempted a smile, then looked at their daughter. The man calmly responded that if they were to go back, their lives would be in danger—the family had fled because they were persecuted for practicing their religion.
 
Kanokwan conferred with the interpreter and took careful notes. Her job is to help this family complete an application that will withstand scrutiny by immigration officials and, if all goes well, assist them on their path to a better life. It’s one of the many ways the IRC helps individuals transition from harm to home.
 
I left the interview to meet with members of the IRC’s Thailand advocacy team, who on behalf of this vulnerable population raise pertinent issues with the Thai government and humanitarian aid agencies, make policy recommendations and empower local organizations that have sprung up to serve the Burmese community. Some of these migrants may not qualify for refugee status. Many come to Bangkok hoping for a better life only to confront enormous challenges, including prejudice.
 
The IRC's Saw Khu helps migrant children with their homework

Saw Khu helps Burmese students with their homework at a school for migrants that recieves support from the IRC.

Photo: Emily Holland

I asked Saw Khu, the IRC’s senior advocacy officer, to tell me more about this complicated and difficult situation. First, he explained, Burmese migrants must cross the border into Thailand, a task that has created a cottage industry of brokers and subbrokers, some legitimate and others corrupt. “If they have a problem, the migrants do not know who to contact,” said Saw. “They don’t know where to go. Many can’t speak Thai. Sometimes subbrokers [who have taken their money] just run away and they are lost.” Saw nodded his head in compassion. He was once a Burmese migrant living in Singapore and understands the plight of the displaced.
 
“Once in Thailand,” Saw continued, “migrants need work. But the only jobs left are the ones no locals will take.” They labor as domestic workers in Thai homes where they are often mistreated. They work long hours at the fishing docks or endure difficult and dangerous conditions at garment and textiles factories choked with noxious fumes. As one tired, young woman put it, they are simply “working to survive.” 
 
“This way,” said Saw, leading me to a high-rise building next to a textile factory where hundreds of migrants live and work. It’s also where a charismatic, young man has set up shop to advocate for his displaced countrymen. From his tiny room wallpapered with photographs of community events, the man helps newly arrived Burmese find jobs and negotiate with their bosses for better working conditions. With the IRC’s help, he also trains community health workers to assist ailing migrants to access treatment at Thai hospitals. 
 
Of course, there is the next generation to think about. Although public education in Thailand is available to everyone, many migrant children aren’t able to take advantage of the opportunity. They can’t speak Thai. They have no way of getting to school. They would rather make money working alongside their parents. Some Burmese aren’t willing to send their children to Thai schools, fearing that they will forget their own language and culture. And certain Thai schools refuse to accept Burmese children even though it’s illegal to do so. 
 
Nap time at an IRC supported school for migrant children in Bangkok

Nap time for the school's youngest students. On weekends, the parents come to the school to learn Thai.

Photo: Emily Holland

 
Here again the IRC has stepped in to find a solution. Not far from the factories where many Burmese work, the Rural Youth Initiative School is making great strides on behalf of their children, helping them learn to read and do arithmetic. Teachers engage them in games from their home country. The school even has a bus to pick them up and take them home, relieving their hard-working parents of this stress. On weekends, the parents come to the school to learn Thai.
 
When we spoke, the principal thanked the IRC for helping to create this haven from the streets of Bangkok. “The IRC came in and helped to re-floor the facility,” he told me, going on to praise the IRC for supporting the school’s educational platform. I smiled at the rows of tiny shoes left by the school’s littlest students, napping peacefully in the next room. “It is my dream that the children should be able to do anything they want to do, to be protected, and to live here and outside of Thailand,” he said, smiling back at me. “IRC is a friend. A good friend.” Unfortunately, few children are fortunate enough to attend this IRC-supported school—so far, only about 50 have the opportunity.
 
Saw then took me to the fishing docks, where I met dozens of migrants, including children, crushing ice with large axes and shelling mussels with their bare hands. One 10-year-old girl wearing a pink t-shirt and flip-flops looked up from the wet floor with a vacant expression. For every kilo of mussels, she receives 10 baht (the equivalent of 33 U.S. cents). She can manage 30 kilos on a good day, which comes to less than $10.
 
Driving back to the IRC Bangkok office, Saw told me that he hopes, in time, girls like her will be able to rise above these conditions. “I want Burmese children to be educated, not to have to work like their parents, to go to university and to be a bridge for their culture. I want their situation to be brighter.”


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