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Coordinated action needed for migrant students amid pandemic

Coordinated action needed for migrant students amid pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak has deprived students of brick-and-mortar schools, including about 500,000 migrant children in Thailand who are among the most vulnerable. The increasing financial burden, emotional distress linked to families losing jobs, and school and migrant-learning centre closures have put children at risk of losing opportunities or even dropping out of school.

For many migrants, the accompanying economic crisis means that even more children have to contribute to earning incomes to help their families survive day to day. Child labour further adversely affects learning loss and makes students fall further behind. Lifelong learning prospects are at stake, but so are healthy and inclusive societies that are in the interest of everyone.

“Nowadays, 65% of migrant families have only one earning member,” said Ms. Siraporn Kaewsombat, director of the Help without Frontiers Foundation. “These vulnerable populations are being more isolated from society and assistance from the government due to the stigmatization labeling migrant workers as carriers of COVID- 19.”

The digital divide, language barriers and limited personalized learning support raise further barriers to migrant students participation in online lessons and distance learning. At the same time, migrants are receiving inadequate psychological and emotional support during a very difficult time.

“According to our survey, migrant students do not have their own mobile phones to watch online lessons via DLTV and the incurring debt forces students to leave school to help their families earn money, and they are at risk of being victims of domestic violence,” said Ms. Tanaporn Ormtavesub, director of advocacy and corporate engagement at the Baan Dek Foundation.

Building on pre-pandemic initiatives, UN agencies, the private sector and NGOs are working to meet these challenges and re-establish education opportunities for the most vulnerable. UNESCO Bangkok in collaboration with IOM Thailand, UNICEF Thailand, Save the Children and other NGOs recently organized an online meeting focusing on migrant children and education in Thailand under COVID-19 conditions to build collaboration to transform education, calling for concrete and immediate action.

Participants raised issues such as the lack of teaching and learning materials, budgets to provide education at all levels including nursery school, and financial support to ensure migrant students and families’ basic needs were being met. UNESCO Bangkok and partners are also continuing to support the LearnBig initiative, an open digital library platform for underprivileged students offering more than 1,000 educational resources both in Thai and Myanmar languages.

As school and migrant learning centres are able to partially reopen, the online and ICT-related strategies will complement other distance learning methods as well as physical distancing measures. Similarly, the migrant learning centres and multilingual teaching materials supplement state schools to strengthen the nationwide education system.

“According to our experiment, a four-metre by four-metre space can accommodate up to nine students in the case of the implementation of half model of returning to school guidelines,” said Mr. Pongsakorn Thongkom, Director of Migrant Education Coordination Center, Tak Primary Educational Service Area Office 2. “The students who can study online would use the LearnBig application and website developed by UNESCO for their studies.”

However, tablets and other ICT devices are still needed for teachers and students to access the platform. “Those who cannot access the internet will be provided with learning kits such as printed materials and textbooks,” he added.

From the private sector, True Corporation focuses on the digital divide, maintaining migrant workers’ contracts, and providing scholarships and funds for rural schools and learning centres. Organizations such the Migrant Education Coordination Center is seeking help to secure tablets for teachers in Mae Sot and Tak provinces; Help without Frontiers Foundation needs assistance to feed 2,164 migrant families in Mae Sot; and Baan Dek Foundation requires backing for non-formal education and programmes catering for the emotional health of children and their families.

Distance learning, and particularly online learning, are transforming the learning landscape, but disproportionately for higher-income or urban families. As schooling shifts to distance learning as part of blended education options, migrant students cannot be excluded at risk of creating even more inequalities in society. 

This work depends on extensive partnerships and policy integration between Government, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector. The welfare of migrant workers and education of migrant learners are fundamental human rights, and critical to the social and economic welfare of communities and the country.

By Peerapas Ratanapaskorn, a recent graduate from Chulalongkorn University and intern for Educational Innovation and Skills Development Section at UNESCO Bangkok

* This article was first published in The Bangkok Post