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Outreach to migrant learners is essential in COVID-19 response

Outreach to migrant learners is essential in COVID-19 response

Migrant families and students who face social and economic upheaval are among the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, the loss of employment or legal residency has forced dislocation from host countries at a time when travel is difficult and potentially hazardous. In addition to the public health risk, students are also being deprived of their right to education with potential long-term consequences for their futures and also regional sustainable development.

Thailand has been a major migrant destination for decades, hosting several million economic migrants and about 164,000 non-Thai students in the school system. The country can provide a model across the region, with educators now urgently calling for awareness-raising measures for migrant families to mitigate risks posed by the pandemic and pave the way for an inclusive, equitable recovery.

Thailand’s landmark 2005 Cabinet Resolution on Education for Unregistered Persons guarantees “all children, regardless of their nationalities or legal status, have the right to 15 years of free basic education”. There is, however, a persistent lack of data regarding how many children are still out of school. 

The COVID-19 situation further exposes how vulnerable lower-income migrant families can be to social disruption. The critical physical distancing measures recommended to limit the spread of the virus are for many families almost impossible to maintain.

“The concerning point for migrant parents and students is awareness of the COVID virus,” said Yaninee Khamkiree, Managing Director of Foundation for Rural Youth (FRY), which operates a network of learning centres in Thailand catering for migrant students. “Most of them work in local markets that are crowded and they do not wear masks or use alcohol gel. Factory workers are continuing their daily jobs as usual because factories in Samut Sakorn province are still open and parents cannot stop working because they have to earn a daily income.”

As part of its outreach, FRY has repurposed funds designated for health awareness meetings to distribute protective materials such as masks, sanitizing gel and information packets to migrant communities. Health education begins with students at the learning centres, but the foundation also conducts field visits to visit parents.

With the March closures of schools and migrant learning centres in Thailand, educators also lost a crucial line of communication with some students and their families. Pongsakorn Tongkom, Director of the Educational Promotion Unit & Migrant Education Coordination Centre (MECC) in Tak province, is particularly concerned about what will happen when students return to school and how enrolment will be conducted.

“We are not so sure about the situation of the migrant students who have returned to Myanmar, whether they will take any protective measures against the virus,” Mr Pongsakorn said. “We currently have no official statistics on how many children have returned to Myanmar. My concern is for when they come back to Thailand.”

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these communities, particularly families whose parents are engaged in irregular work, are already vulnerable to income shocks, discrimination and marginalisation. With the displacement experienced by many families under current circumstances, many migrant children and youth face further risks including exploitation and potential sexual abuse.

Those challenges are on top of what is being experienced by every sector of society. The public health situation is compounded by pervasive socioeconomic turmoil, in which many workers and their families face potential job losses, distancing from friends and loved ones, and uncertainty and anxiety about the future. All of these problems are compounded by the swell of disinformation breaking across social media about the virus, possible health measures and other rumours.

For migrants that do not speak the national language fluently, assuring trustworthy sources of information and advice can add to the problem. “I am concerned about fake news of COVID during this time,” Ms Yaninee said. “Parents and students’ attitudes towards COVID are that this is not a serious situation. Some believed that hot tea will kill the virus, so they will not become infected.”

Both FRY and MECC, among many other governmental and private-sector agencies, are reaching out through their networks to provide help, hygienic supplies and information to migrant students and communities. There needs to a broader realisation across society that the welfare of vulnerable people, not just migrants but low-income and other groups, is critical to all during this pandemic.

Thailand’s commitment to universal education should be a model for the entire region. Because of long-standing barriers facing migrant learners, existing solutions using ICT and teaching in mother-tongue languages provide some solutions even in the present difficult circumstances. The LearnBig open digital library, for example, has provided learners at migrant centres with tablets provided by True and Microsoft for reading and maths with over 1,000 books and curricula in the Myanmar, Thai and Malay languages, which can continue to be teaching resources even amid school closures.

MECC plans to use LearnBig platform to promote learning while learners are not in school, with teachers helping to provide guidance on the lessons and assignments to the learners. With the support of UN agencies and networks in Thailand and Myanmar, UNESCO is currently compiling information, education and communication materials in response to COVID-19 as well as learning materials suitable for migrant and marginalised children.

Continuing education during and after the pandemic is crucial for the future of these young learners, the health of their communities and the greater welfare of the countries in which they live. In the short term, however, education also serves a vital role in contributing to the public health of the society as a whole.

“Out-of-school and migrant children have less access to educational opportunities and life skills development. Lack of education puts them at risk of contracting the virus,” Mr Pongsakorn said. “We need to make sure that they have the knowledge to protect themselves, and prevent the spreading of the virus to others. If the children know how to protect themselves, they can help save their school and community.” 

Sowirin Chuanprapun is Project Officer and Piyawan Suwattanathum is Programme Assistant in the Literacy and Non-Formal Education unit of UNESCO Bangkok

* A version of this article was first published in the Thai Enquirer