Some 46 children born to Myanmar migrants in Thailand and now living in an orphanage and studying at a school in the country have been granted Thai ID cards, according to the Social Action for Children and Women (SAW) organization.
Thai immigration authorities issued ID cards to all 46 students in Mae Sot district of Tak province, Thailand on Feb. 4. Being granted ID cards promises to transform their lives, said Daw Aye Aye Mar, the director of SAW.
“I had long wondered how to get ID cards for the children, because it is very important for their lives. If they don’t have ID cards, it’s not easy for them to stay in Thailand. It’s not safe for them if they don’t have ID cards,” she said.
The 46 children have documents showing that they were born at the Mae Tao Clinic or the Thai public hospital in Mae Sot. Daw Aye Aye Mar said her organization was careful to keep all their documents when taking the children into their care.
“I kept all their paper documents in my files. I knew it would be useful one day,” she said.
In the past, migrant children who did not have Thai ID cards were not able to study at Thai schools. However, in 2008, the Thai government removed this restriction for migrant children.
“After we learned about this, we tried to send our children to Thai schools, but we were not successful at first,” she said. She added that the group also tried to send some of the children to private schools, but it was very expensive.
“We had to inform the Thai school authorities about the changes made at the top by the Thai government. The Thai school authorities gradually accepted more students over the years. Eventually, more and more children from orphanages who did not have Thai ID cards were able to study at Thai schools,” she said.
“My intention was that our children would get student ID cards once they joined the Thai schools. Their student ID cards would provide them with security instead of having nothing staying in Mae Sot,” she said.
She said that after the children attended the Thai schools for five years, the school authorities provided them with local Thai ID cards (known as 10-year-term ID cards). Those who receive the cards qualify for free medical treatment in Thailand when they are sick. The children can also travel freely to Chiang Mai for study trips, she said.
The 46 children are aged between 10 and 18 years old and study in the 4th to the 10th grades.
She said another six students were expected to qualify for Thai IDs soon. The minimum age to apply for the ID card is 10.
Daw Aye Aye Mar was a founding member of SAW. She said the group built the orphanage and had to struggle to find funding after international NGOs withdrew from the Thai-Myanmar border in recent years.
Most of the orphans’ parents died of complications from HIV/AIDS. The Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot has to care for many abandoned newborns. Nurses at the clinic try to take care of them until they are a few months old, but limited resources and time makes it hard to take care of them permanently.
“They have no idea where to find people who can take care of them. That’s why we opened the orphanage,” she said.
Some migrants from Myanmar also abandon newborn babies at the Thai public hospital in Mae Sot, so the hospital has also asked SAW to help take care of such children, she said.
When they arrive at the orphanage, the children typically range in age from newborns to 3 months. SAW initially intended to adopt only girls, but they decided to adopt both genders due to the large number of abandoned boys.
All too often, girls arrive who have been raped by their stepfathers and are in need of a safe house. Children from refugee camps who have suffered violence at the hands of family members are also sent to the orphanage.
“As the number of children grew, we decided to open [our own school for kindergarteners and children in the early grades]. But we first had to get permission from the Thai authorities for that. We also wanted them to study at Thai schools [as they got older]. But our children did not have ID cards, so they could not join Thai schools [at first],” she said.
SAW has faced budgetary problems since 2015, when political reforms in Myanmar prompted many international NGOs to withdraw from the Thai-Myanmar border. Many of those international NGOs moved to work inside Myanmar.
Some promised SAW they would continue to donate to the organization if it moved its base inside the country, according to Daw Aye Aye Mar.
However, this was impossible, as all of the children were learning Thai; moving back to Myanmar would mean starting from zero for all of them, she said.
“It did not make sense, because our children were already as far along as grades 9 and 10. They grew up in the Thai community and they are happy to stay with this community. How could we move inside [Myanmar] and let them start primary school again?” she said.
Due to SAW’s financial problems, it first had to close down grades 1 to 4 at its own school. This year it was forced to halt the children’s studies from grades 5 to 7.
“We only have grades 8 to 10 available for the children to study this year [at SAW’s own school],” she said.
Daw Aye Aye Mar said that most of the problems stemmed from conditions inside Myanmar. Many families do not have enough work to support themselves, or else their land has been confiscated by the authorities, leaving them without livelihoods. Many people have no choice but to seek work in neighboring countries, especially Thailand.
The border checkpoint between Kayin State’s Myawaddy and Mae Sot is relatively easy to cross. Therefore, many people from Myanmar choose this as their entry point to Thailand, she said.
“[Myanmar] migrants will keep coming to Thailand as long as our country lacks jobs. And as long as migrants keep coming to the border, children will continue to suffer,” she said.
“They [international NGOs] think [Myanmar] has changed politically, but it’s not true. If things had changed, no one would need to come looking for work in Thailand,” Daw Aye Aye Mar said.