Despite Thailand's long-standing commitment to a policy of Education for All (EFA) which allows stateless and migrant children to attend public schools, the children of illegal and impoverished Cambodian labourers are still being denied an education.
The daughter of a Cambodian migrant worker cooks lunch in a rented room in Bangkok on September 18, 2022.
Heng Kong, 31, an undocumented construction worker who has been working in Thailand for more than two years, lives with her 5-year-old son. She was planning to send him to a public kindergarten but was told that the school did not accept the children of illegal workers.
“I am an illegal construction worker … which requires working at ever-changing locations … and because [of this my son] … is not allowed an education,” she said.
She is unable to leave her children in Cambodia as both her parents have passed away and there is no one else who can look after them.
Working in country without papers, she fears that one day the police will show up and arrest her family.
In order for children of migrant workers to attend school, their parents must be legally employed. Their employer must issue a letter certifying the fact and the parents must also be able to prove that the children are theirs. For some, it is a struggle to obtain the required documents.
Huot La, a 22-year-old labourer working in Chonburi, said that her a six-year-old nephew is unable to attend school, despite the fact that his parents are legal employees. They were unable to obtain a letter of confirmation from their employer.
“They said they did not know how to do it. We do not have money and do not know where to take our kids to school," she said.
Seng Sary, a research fellow at the Social Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University, reports that access was particularly difficult for the children of Cambodian construction workers who work at ever-changing locations, posing a challenge for Thai civil society organisations that help with the provision of educational services.
He notes that without education, such children were likely to follow in the footsteps of their parents, never making the transition to skilled labour.
The point was reiterated by Sompong Srakaew, the founder and director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN). As he noted in an interview, “if they don't go to school, [they] will become migrant child labourers.”
Denied access to public education, workers seeking to enrol their children in private schools find it too costly.
La explained that when she sought to place her nephew at a private school close to her workplace in 2021, the fees were too much for her family. In addition to a tuition of 6,000 baht per term, they needed money for a uniform and other school supplies.
“Our daily income is only 350 baht. How can we pay for thousands of baht in school fees?,” she said.
Moeun Tola, an executive director of labor rights NGO Central, affirmed that some children of Cambodian migrant workers miss school because their parents lack proper documentation and are afraid that they may get in trouble if they take their kids to school. Low incomes, high daily expenses and debt preclude the option of private education.
Left behind or brought along?
Family members are being left behind in greater numbers. Globally, around 83 percent of all migrant workers are women. Frequently, they are forced to leave their kids at home with grandparents, relatives, or siblings.
A 2019 study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Chulalongkorn University's Asian Research Centre for Migration (ARCM) found that despite Thai immigration laws not permitting family travel, Cambodian migrants commonly migrate with their spouses.
Three-quarters of those interviewed were married and 80% of those were living in Thailand with a spouse. Almost half of them had children, who were often left behind with relatives in Cambodia.
Leaving children behind or bringing them along both posed challenges.
Kong explained that her family was quite poor and all of her relatives were already working in Thailand. As a result, she had to bring her child with her. There was no one to help back home. But having brought her kids along, they were now unable to attend school.
Another worker, Art Youi, 31, from Bangkok, said that she brought her daughter to Thailand and sent her to school when she was 6, but after a year sent her back to study in Cambodia so that she could learn Khmer.
Her daughter lived with with her mother-in-law in Cambodia for five years. As a result of family problems, she was eventually forced to return to Thailand, however.
The girl completed the fifth grade in Cambodia. Returning to school in Thailand, she was told that if she wanted to attend classes, she would need to restart in first grade with younger students.
Youi is not sure what to do. If she sends her daughter back to Cambodia, she will have to live with a non-relative but if she keeps her in Thailand, the girl will be unable to continue her studies.
The daughter, Saroth Mawatey, 13, who loves learning and previously had good grades, said that she will study in Thailand if if her mom can afford it but otherwise, will be unable to finish her studies.
She hopes that there might be an organisation that could help, but her family does not know who to contact.
Seeking easier access
Research by Save the Children indicates that approximately 61% of all migrant children are out of school, while 34% attend schools, and 5% rely on Migrant Learning Centres.
There are three types of learning centres: 1) those that prepare kids for education in public or private schools in Thailand; 2) those that offer non-formal education in Thailand and Myanmar and issue diplomas; and 3) migrant-managed centres, which lack legal standing and are not recognised as private schools by the Thai educational system.
Cambodian workers have asked the government and civil society organisations to establish more centres for Cambodian children.
La said that where she lives, there are migrant learning centres for Myanmar children, but none for Cambodian kids. To ensure that Cambodian children receive the same education as other children, she calls on the government or civil society organisations to establish a community of child educators.
"Cambodian migrant workers are really lonely. We came to work as migrant workers like the Burmese and Lao, but the Cambodian government does not seem to care about the problems of Cambodian workers in Thailand."
The workers said that if there was a Cambodian community in the zone where they are staying, they would be happy to stay with their kids and help them to receive an education.
Only 5% of Cambodian migrant children in Thailand are in school, according to Moeun Tola.
Tola believes that Cambodia, as a member of ASEAN, should take up the issue. He notes that the ASEAN Declaration mentions respecting and promoting the rights of migrant workers and, presumably, their family members.
He calls upon the Cambodian government to discuss the problem with the governments of countries hosting Cambodian migrant labour.+
He believes that if Cambodia does, it will also help the children of Lao, Vietnamese, and Burmese labourers in Thailand and Malaysia as well. In ASEAN, Thailand and Malaysia host the most migrant labourers.
The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand could not be reached for comment.