I feel I should have prefaced my post about the children in the Burmese orphanages, with the comment “this information is from discussions I have had with the carers in the orphanages, not from the Thai Department of Social Welfare” so of course they might have a different take on it.

But what I understood was that things depend on where the children end up. If they and up in an institution that is outside of the official department of Social Welfare system (like the Burmese refugee orphanages are) then the children cannot then go into Thai state care, and of course it is sometimes not known if their parents are Burmese or Thai.

I think that Burmese kids are only treated differently in that Burmese refugees and migrant worker (adults) are treated differently. They are in many cases seen as ‘illegal’s’ because they can’t leave the camps and legal work permits are hard to get (work permit amnesty’s occur very rarely) which means they can’t access Thai services – like hospitals etc very easily. So if a parent needed to make arrangements then they would not be able to access official Thai department of Social Welfare supported orphanages without exposing themselves as ‘illegal’ migrant workers. Below is a little extract from a talk I gave at a University about the work I do with Burmese refugees and migrant workers, it might give some more context to the situation.

Burmese Refugees and Migrant workers

People continue to migrate from Burma to Thailand and while there are currently 150,000 camp based refugees there is also an estimated 2 million other people from Burma trying to survive in Thailand, these people fall under the umbrella term of migrant workers, or working refugees.

Refugees from Burma come to Thailand for a wide range of reasons including: losing their land to the Burmese military, forced labour, systematic rape of ethnic women, flooding of land in mega-development projects, political harassment and persecution, shortage of food, lack of employment opportunities.

The distinction between “refugee” and “migrant worker” is in a sense semantics, since the Thai government does not recognise refugees, and all “migrant workers” or “working refugees” have faced situations of civil war and/or severe human rights abuses. And although the term “working refugees”, would probably be the most appropriate term for this evening, as it refers to people who have fled for survival to Thailand and with no other options available have sought work for their livelihood; here I will use the term migrant workers, as that is what Burmese labourers in Thailand are most commonly known as.

In 2004 Thailand held an “amnesty” for migrant workers already in Thailand, where migrant workers, previously deemed to be ‘illegal’ workers would register and receive an identity card. 1 million 280 thousand migrant workers registered at that time, some were from Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, but the majority, 921,000 people were from Burma.  Since 2004 some of these registered would have moved on or returned home, but many others would have been arriving in a continuum as steady as those who arrive into the camps. Because there has not been another amnesty and mass registration period it is difficult to determine exactly how many migrant workers from Burma are living in Thailand today, but the estimate is as high is 2 million.

The term migrant worker often brings a connotation that their reason for migration is purely economic; however the term refugee conjures a firm image of one needing assistance and being in desperate circumstance. However in the case of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, it is not correct to view their migration as a choice. Migration for economic reasons might be considered distasteful or opportunistic to some, but for the people of Burma there is often little choice. The Burmese ruling junta have mismanaged the economy so completely that inflation is high, commodity costs can skyrocket with little warning, and in a country where it is estimated that around 95% of people live on less then $1 per day the effect is devastating. While the Junta will spend around 40% of its annual GDP on the military, they spend as little as 0.4% on health and 0.5% on education, all of these factors have pushed the people of Burma into desperate situations where simply surviving depends on migration.

Once in Thailand refugee workers are working in jobs shunned by the local workforce because of the poor pay and the sub-standard occupational health and safety (OH&S) standards. Migrant workers in Thailand work in the construction industry in booming places like Chiang Mai, and the tourist resorts on the beaches in Southern Thailand. They work in border towns like Mae Sot in garment factories, polishing gems and also in the temporary agricultural jobs like fruit picking, melon picking and seasonal planting. Some of the worst conditions reported to us are in the fisheries industry and seafood processing, where we hear of the worst conditions such as forced labour and child labour.

Migrant workers face;

  • Exploitation
  • Dangerous Occupational Health and Safety standards
  • Poor living conditions
  • Health problems
  • Uncertainly, in terms of job security and a high risk of deportation
  • Isolation
  • Child labour


Those that have registration cards have their cards confiscated by their employer – this leaves them extremely vulnerable to ‘raids’ that can occur at any time by Thai police.

Most migrant workers are paid below the Thai minimum wage. Although Thai law does not recognise the rights of refugees or of migrant workers – all workers in Thailand are protected by the minimum wage – yet often in the gem and garment factories of Mae Sot (and other areas) migrant workers only receive 90 bhat per day instead of the 170 minimum wage.

Some migrant workers are kept in slave labour conditions because their documents are confiscated. They work a month on with only a few days off  and then often the day before they are due to be paid the workplaces are ‘raided’ and the migrants are deported by the police (who are in cahoots with the employer)… so they are never actually paid for their hard labour.

Dangerous Occupational Health and Safety standards:

Workers in the construction industry and factories are particularly vulnerable to workplace injury.

Injured workers have no compensation or rights of appeal against employers. They are often thrown out of their boarding house and are in desperate conditions.

Employers often hand them over to the police, one of the health clinics we work with has become a ‘dumping ground’ for Burmese migrant workers injured at work – if the police feel compassionately towards them they dump them at the clinic instead of back over the border into Burma (which used to be the usual practice).

The most common injuries to workers are broken, and shattered limbs, spinal injuries, loss of digits, hands or limbs as well as injuries to sight and hearing.

My work supports Migrant Worker Organisations who raise awareness about these issues with migrant workers themselves and also with the Thai Authorities to advocate on their behalf. They have sheltered migrant workers in safe houses while they have undergone treatment for injury and rehabilitation and also sheltered workers while they have launched claims against employees who are exploiting and underpaying migrant workers – often if these cases can go all the way through the courts then they win!! And the workers can claim compensation!

Poor living conditions & Health problems

Refugees from Burma arrive in Thailand often in poor health due to the dire economic, political and social situation in Burma.

They have very little information about health issues, particularly issues such as HIV or avian flu and are therefore vulnerable to communicable diseases.

The crowded conditions of worker dormitories where workers are often only given enough space to lie down to sleep exacerbate these medical problems and spreads communicable diseases.

Refugee worker women are also vulnerable to situations of violence and abuse by employers, local authorities and within their own communities. While the registration policies of Thailand provide refugee workers with a temporary status to work in Thailand, it does not provide refugee workers with an identity status nor include refugee workers in the social and cultural life of the country. Refugee workers are therefore isolated and excluded from mainstream society. 

Whilst those registered for the Migrant Workers Card have access to the National Health Service (30 baht scheme) of Thailand their access is limited by language barriers, which is why MAP provide translators in hospitals. Refugee workers who have not been able to register have to pay full costs at state hospitals.

Transient nature of the work – means it is difficult to provide health information and access to programs like TB programs and anti-retroviral for migrant workers with HIV.

The Migrant Worker Organisations my work supports helps workers to be more aware by running local language health programs on radio and in free magazines.

Despite these conditions and risks most migrants still prefer to be in Thailand then Burma – which says a lot about conditions in Burma!

The situation for Children

People who are of a working age are also of a reproductive age. But the working conditions described above are not conducive for supporting a family life.

Employers often actively discourage families in the boarding houses or disallow families to be housed in the boarding houses. Some will not allow anyone to be housed who is not working – and so families feel pressured to make their children work. Parents in this situation may place their children in an orphanage either permanently or as a temporary measure.

Workers lives are transient, they often have to move for work – especially seasonal work such as agricultural work. If they have a family then they have to move often and this means that their children need to change schools or miss large sections of their schooling if there is no free or migrant worker children school available.

In Mae Sot alone there are 64 Migrant Worker schools recognised by the Thai education authorities and many more not recognised. The Burmese Migrant Worker Education Committee who are the umbrella groups for the 64 schools say there are 10,000 children of migrant workers under their care (in the 64 schools) but they estimate that that is only 25% of the number of children needing schooling in the area!

It is a HUGE task.

Here is some pics of one of the schools my organisation supports, The Burma Labour Solidarity Organisation School;

learning learning!

more learning!

the open space at the back of the school for playing